SEVEN months into his term, the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa has already started to shake things up in an attempt to shake the ghosts of the past, when the judiciary appeared reluctant to carry out accountability or introspection.

Not only did he bring back full court meetings, but the chief judge also agreed to dilute his powers as the CJP under the Practice and Procedure Act 2023, which was suspended by his predecessor Umar Ata Bandial, who termed the law “interference in court affairs”.

In the words of senior lawyer Akram Sheikh, an era of transparency and openness was ushered in when CJP Isa took oath of office in Sept last year.

“Qazi sahib has pioneered a new era in our superior judiciary and can be rightly termed as having brought revolutionary changes in [the] running of the highest court,” he said, adding that CJP Isa took oath on Sunday, and the first thing he did was to convene a meeting of the full court.

Although the top judge has many detractors, his penchant for picking up threads of ‘unfinished judicial business’, such as the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto case, has won him many unlikely admirers

On the same day, he decided to take up a case about the Practice and Procedure Act, filed months before he took charge.

The chief judge also formed a committee of three senior judges for the constitution of benches under Article 184(3), a power earlier held by the ‘master of roster’, i.e. the chief justice.

Mr Sheikh hoped that CJP Isa would be able to turn the court into an “actually final but satisfactory resort for consumers of justice”.

Former additional attorney general (AAG) Tariq Mehmood Khokhar agreed. He said CJP Isa inherited an institution with deepening fissures and lacking the power to effect elections under the Constitution, but he proved to be instrumental in plugging institutional fissures and holding general elections.

Adherence to Constitution

At the very outset, Justice Isa seemed to make it clear that the court would concern itself with the obligations enshrined in the Con­stitution and all judgements would emanate from that document.

This meant that the court would not overstep its bounds, as seen in the past, nor let anyone else do so.

To back up this commitment, the CJP took up two cases: the general elections case and the Musharraf case.

While he remained steadfast in his desire not to let the government delay elections any further than they already had been, a landmark verdict on Jan 10, 2024 upheld the death penalty awarded to late military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf.

In another daring move before taking office, Justice Isa attended a session of the National Assembly on the golden jubilee of the Constitution. He later shrugged off clamour on social media by saying that the occasion was one of celebration for all citizens, and not the exclusive domain of any particular political party or institution.

ZAB reference

Another achievement of the Isa-led court is the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reference, which took over a decade to decide. During a visit to a court reporters’ event last year when he was still the senior puisne judge, a journalist had quipped that “whenever we talk of the rule of law, we are faced with a paradox that the one who framed the 1973 Constitution, still awaits justice”.

The journalist was referring to the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on April 4, 1979, as the presidential reference seeking an opinion on revisiting the death sentence in the case was still pending while the country was celebrating the golden jubilee of the 1973 Constitution.

Soon after assuming the top office, CJP Isa not only fixed the reference for hearing, but had also decided the same on March 6, by admitting that fair trial and due process to Bhutto was denied by the Lahore High Court (LHC) and then appellate court’s final endorsement.

The reference was filed in April 2011 and heard last time in Jan 2012 by then Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. After that, it was not taken up by successive CJPs for 12 years.

“You need a considerable moral courage to accept the grave injustice done to the then Prime Minister by none other than the top judiciary itself,” commented a senior counsel on condition of anonymity.

The other achievements of the top judge include live streaming of court proceedings, reversal of lifetime disqualification for elected representatives, accountability of a brother judge (Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi), and relief to ex-IHC judge Shaukat Siddiqui, who was sacked for claiming the involvement of the ISI in the court affairs.

This last decision also proved to be a catalyst for others to come forward with their gripes, as six judges of the Islamabad High Court — finding solace in the top court’s exoneration of their former colleague — found the courage to raise some uncomfortable issues before the Supreme Judicial Council.

Faults

But the top judge is not without his detractors. The PTI election symbol case, choosing returning officers (ROs) from the executive, loss of reserved seats for PTI, JIT notices to journalists and interim orders in the military courts have enraged many, said Mr Khokhar, the former additional attorney general.

He added that the timing was not propitious for the CJP, and a social media campaign against him only added to it.

Mr Sheikh, the seasoned lawyer, said the CJP did earn a “negative perception” for deciding political cases, but overall “he can rightly claim to his credit the drastic changes he introduced” as the top judge. The lawyer said that through a live telecast of trials, he turned the closed-door Supreme Court into an open, transparent, and dynamic institution.

After becoming the CJP, Justice Isa also appointed the SC’s first-ever woman registrar, Jazeela Aslam, who was a district and sessions judge in Okara. His decision to invite his spouse Sarina Isa to stand next to him during the oath-taking ceremony also speaks for his progressive credentials.

Perceived as an upright judge, the top adjudicator is certainly not without his faults. He is also routinely subjected to intense criticism for his straightforward, and often condescending approach and penchant for observations. But even his detractors accept openly that one “needs extreme courage to build such a legacy”.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

Wheat price crash
Updated 20 May, 2024

Wheat price crash

What the government has done to Punjab’s smallholder wheat growers by staying out of the market amid crashing prices is deplorable.
Afghan corruption
20 May, 2024

Afghan corruption

AMONGST the reasons that the Afghan Taliban marched into Kabul in August 2021 without any resistance to speak of ...
Volleyball triumph
20 May, 2024

Volleyball triumph

IN the last week, while Pakistan’s cricket team savoured a come-from-behind T20 series victory against Ireland,...
Border clashes
19 May, 2024

Border clashes

THE Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier has witnessed another series of flare-ups, this time in the Kurram tribal district...
Penalising the dutiful
19 May, 2024

Penalising the dutiful

DOES the government feel no remorse in burdening honest citizens with the cost of its own ineptitude? With the ...
Students in Kyrgyzstan
Updated 19 May, 2024

Students in Kyrgyzstan

The govt ought to take a direct approach comprising convincing communication with the students and Kyrgyz authorities.