NEW year, new chief justice of Pakistan, new-look bench, but the same old Panama Papers issue. Moving quickly, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar has formed a five-judge bench to restart the Panama hearings and the changes to the bench’s composition are worth noting. By excluding himself from the bench, Chief Justice Nisar has allowed the hearings to be held in a less charged environment. Courtroom No 1, where the chief justice holds hearings, brings with it the most intense of media scrutiny and public interest and all too often litigants in politically charged matters resort to grandstanding before the court. With three of the original five justices still part of the bench, the fresh hearings can now be undertaken in a pragmatic and efficient manner. The second change, dropping a judge who is to retire in March, suggests that Chief Justice Nisar has an eye on continuity rather than disruption if the hearings stretch out once again.

Politically, it is welcome that all sides have publicly resolved to continue participating in the hearings. While the PTI has vacillated a great deal in recent weeks, sanity has prevailed for now. By accepting the new bench and announcing that the PTI is looking forward to pressing its case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the party has avoided creating fresh controversy at the start of the new year. While it remains to be seen if it will abide by its commitment for the duration of the hearings, perhaps what the PTI, and other political parties, should consider is that ongoing and regular hearings of the Panama issue gives the opposition a political advantage in that it is the government and the Sharif family that will be on the defensive for the most part. Beyond that, there is the matter of a commitment to a democratic and constitutional order by the combined political opposition: to boycott or downgrade Supreme Court hearings would be to show disregard for the rule of law and the finality of the court as a judicial forum.

Finally, there are the lessons to be learned from the earlier set of hearings. Widespread public interest, intense media scrutiny and informed commentary are democracy-enhancing and should be encouraged when it comes to all state institutions. Over the decades, an excessively deferential approach to the Supreme Court has at times done a disservice to both democracy and the court itself. However, some of the public conduct surrounding the previous hearings spilled into the unacceptable; the new hearings ought to be covered and commented on in a more serious, sober manner.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2017

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