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Contempt act

July 06, 2012

WITH each step the government and the judiciary have taken in the NRO implementation and prime minister’s contempt of court cases over the last few months, the political and the legal have become more closely intertwined. And with the arrival of a new prime minister the possible implications of this tussle have only gotten more worrying. Giving its timing and content, the new contempt of court act the government is trying to pass into law is clearly an attempt to save a second prime minister from being sent home too once the NRO implementation hearing resumes on July 12. But while legislating to confront immediate challenges is not necessarily the most principled or long-term approach to lawmaking, the action is also one of an elected government with its back against the wall in the face of a Supreme Court at whose hands it has already suffered one major defeat.

This could now play out it in a couple of different ways. Passing the law through parliament requires only a simple majority, which will be easy enough for the ruling party to pull off. But petitions contesting the law will inevitably be filed, and at that point the court could either take an aggressive stance against it or find a way to let it slide, which would enable the SC to let the current prime minister survive despite having sacked Mr Gilani. In fact, the procedure for hearing contempt of court cases laid out in the new law, or the process of determining whether the law is valid in the face of the court’s existing judgments, could well delay a decision in the NRO implementation case till the point elections are held. That could be one way to minimise disruption to the democratic set-up. Ultimately, what ends up happening next will depend on the court’s mood. Is it hell-bent on getting a letter written by a stubborn government in order to establish its authority vis-à-vis other institutions? Or will it be willing to take advantage of this development to step back for the greater good of the system?