CJP’s legacy

Published September 13, 2023

IT was “bitter” constitutional litigation, the chief justice believes, that ultimately affected the court’s performance. But was it just that?

Speaking at a full court reference held to mark the start of a new judicial year, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Monday regretted that the Supreme Court had been pushed into “a trying contest”.

“We sat back and became its victim and suffered in performance,” he reflected.

Yet the Supreme Court can hardly be described as having ‘sat back’ while the country’s institutions and political parties were making a mad grab for power.

Over Justice Bandial’s tenure, the apex court found itself stumbling from one controversy to another, starting from its overturning of the National Assembly deputy speaker’s decision to throw out a no-confidence vote against then PM Imran Khan.

At the time, the decision was widely hailed for having put to rest the doctrine of necessity. However, it also set a precedent for the court to go beyond established boundaries as it attempted to do ‘justice’.

Shortly after, the apex court ‘rewrote’ the Constitution by nullifying lawmakers’ power to defy party lines. Given the political consequences of the court’s interventions in these cases, criticism and controversy followed.

It, therefore, surprised no one when, barely a year later, the court’s internal differences spilt out into the public domain. The court had overstepped once again by taking up petitions against election delays while the high courts were still hearing the matter.

As some of the judges put their foot down to protest their institution’s ‘transgressions’, matters started to unravel quickly.

While the PDM government tried to flame the divisions within the court, the chief justice failed to restore unity within his ranks. Progress on key cases quickly stalled, and justice was put on the back-burner as the change of guard loomed closer.

As Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial prepares to hang up his robes, he has started feeling the weight of this legacy he leaves behind. It is difficult not to empathise with him.

Less than two years ago, he was celebrated for being a “soft-spoken man of integrity” and a “competent judge” who was “learned and fair-minded”. But the same people who once spoke so highly of Justice Bandial later ruthlessly assailed his capabilities, with some accusing him of “fixing” benches with “like-minded judges” and running a “one-man show”.

It cannot be easy for anyone to see their reputation — achieved through an entire lifetime’s work — be ruthlessly attacked and reduced in such a manner. But such a thing is perhaps unavoidable now, given the judicialisation of our politics.

The incoming chief justice should take the experience of the incumbent and those immediately before him as a warning. A ruthless commitment to fair play could help him avoid a similar end next year.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2023

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