The National Tax Tribunals Judgment: Two Interesting Constitutional Issues

Last week, in a judgment that caused quite a stir, the Supreme Court held the National Tax Tribunal Act (and, consequently, the National Tax Tribunal, a centralised adjudicatory for the purpose of deciding and harmonising substantive questions of tax law) to be unconstitutional. I have written a detailed analysis of the judgment elsewhere; in brief, the Court held that the NTT Act transferred the jurisdiction of the High Courts to the Tax Tribunal without ensuring that the Tribunal had sufficient trappings of a Court (e.g., independence and qualifications of its judges etc.) Consequently, it fell foul of the L. Chandra Kumar judgment, and the principle of separation of powers (which the Court rather mysteriously treated as a “constitutional convention”). In a pithy concurring opinion, which is well worth a read, Nariman J. held that it was impermissible to remove the judicial power of deciding substantial questions of law from the High Court.

In this post, I want to focus on two issues thrown up by the judgment, which have been discussed before on this blog, albeit mainly from a theoretical perspective. In its judgment, the Supreme Court relied extensively on the 1975 Privy Council case of Hinds vs The QueenHinds was an appeal from the Court of Appeals of Jamaica. The Jamaican Parliament had passed the “Gun Court Act”, which set up a parallel court system to try certain firearm-related offences. One of the courts it set up was vested with the jurisdiction and powers otherwise enjoyed by the higher judiciary, but its officials possessed neither the independence, and nor the qualifications, that were also enjoyed by the higher judiciary under the Jamaican Constitution. The Privy Council found the act to be unconstitutional, since it violated the principle of the separation of powers between executive and judiciary, which – it held – was a “necessary implication” flowing from the structure of post-colonial, commonwealth “Westminster Constitutions”; it had done so, specifically, by transferring the jurisdiction of the senior judiciary to a parallel court, without guaranteeing the judicial independence of the officers of that court through the rules of tenure, appointment and retirement that applied to regular, senior judges.

In its NTT judgment, the Supreme Court quoted extensively from Hinds. In particular, consider this quotation, which comes after the Privy Council referred to Canadian, Australian and other commonwealth Constitutions (notably, not the Indian):

“All of them [Constitutions] were negotiated as well as drafted by persons nurtured in the tradition of that branch of the common law of England that is concerned with public law and familiar in particular with the basic concept of separation of legislative, executive, and judicial power as it had been developed in the unwritten Constitution of the United Kingdom. As to their subject matter, the peoples for whom these new Constitutions were being provided were already living under a system of public law in which the local institutions through which government was carried on, the legislature, the executive and the courts, reflected the same basic concept. The new Constitutions, particularly in the case of unitary states, were evolutionary, not revolutionary. They provided for the continuity of government through successor institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, of which members were to be selected in a different way, but each institution was to exercise powers which, although enlarged, remained of a similar character to those that had been exercised by the corresponding institution that it had replaced.”

Previously on this blog, I’d drawn a distinction between two types of constitutional provisions: conservative and transformative. Most Constitutions are framed at a point of a decisive break with the past, with its institutions and its values, and certain aspects of a Constitution reflect the “transformation” from one set of values and institutions to another; but the past is never a wholly foreign country, and many institutions and structures not only survive revolutionary moments, but are actually entrenched and strengthened in a Constitution, through its “conservative” provisions. A good – albeit schematic – example is that of the American Constitution: its Bill of Rights was (largely) conservative, seeking to guarantee to the American citizens the ancient and deeply-rooted common law rights (e.g., to a jury trial, against unreasonable searches and seizures etc.) enjoyed by British subjects. On the other hand, the Constitution proper was transformative, replacing British monarchy with a system of representative, republican government, exercised through three separate wings of State.

Whether a particular constitutional provision is conservative or transformative, and to what extent it is transformative can have profound implications for constitutional interpretation. For instance, it is sometimes argued that the American Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, transformed not only their voting status, but the entire legal and political framework, based upon the inferior political and legal status of women, that underlay and justified the denial of their right to vote until that moment. Consequently, the Nineteenth Amendment is used by scholars to ground a jurisprudence of sex-equality and non-discrimination within the American Constitution.

Earlier, in the context of India, I’d tried to argue that the transformative nature of Article 15 justified Naz Foundation (Delhi HC’s) reading of “sexual orientation” into “sex”: in providing a universal guarantee of non-discrimination on a set of grounds that were traditionally the sites of social oppression, the Constitution was signaling a shift from a society in which moral membership in society was contingent upon certain unchangeable aspects of one’s personality (race, caste, sex, place of birth, religion) to one in which ever individual was guaranteed equal moral membership, regardless of those unchangeable aspects (and sexual orientation was one such).

In Madras Bar Association, the Supreme Court applies this interpretive technique, by holding that the Constitution’s structural provisions, which set up the institutions and modes of government, are conservative: they entrench the “Westminster model” that was in practice in colonial India, one of whose features was the separation of powers and concomitant independence of the judiciary, guaranteed through appointment processes and security of tenure. Notice that this interpretive technique is based, ultimately, on a historical claim: whether this “Westminster model” was actually made part of our Constitution and, if so, to what extent, needs to be deciphered not merely from the constitutional text, but from a detailed investigation into its history. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court does nothing of the sort: it glibly assumes that the Westminster Model is the model of our Constitution, and decides the case accordingly. This is problematic because the Constitution was, after all, framed in a post-colonial moment, and it requires much argument to demonstrate what set of structures and institutions the framers simply wished to see carry on unchanged into the new republic; however, the use of the analysis itself is promising, and bodes well for the future.

The other paragraph from Hinds that the Court quoted was:

“Because of all this a great deal can be, and in drafting practice often is, left to necessary implication from the adoption in a new constitution of a governmental structure which makes provisions for a Legislature, an Executive and a Judicature. It is taken for granted that the basic principle of separation of powers will apply to the exercise of their respective functions by these three organs of government… [and] what is implicit in the very structure of a Constitution on the Westminster Model is that judicial power, however it be distributed from time to time between various courts, is to continue to be vested in persons appointed to hold judicial office in the manner and on the terms laid down in the chapter dealing with the Judicature, even though this is not expressly stated in the Constitution.

Previously on this blog – also in the context of Naz Foundation – we had discussed constitutional structure as one of the bases for interpretation. A structural analysis derives constitutional obligations or principles not from a textual reading of individual or aggregated provisions, but – as the American jurist Charles Black explained – from the “structure and relations… created by the text… and the inferences drawn from them.” Or, to put it in more linguistic terms, there are things that a Constitution says, and there are things that it does not say, but which, when it is taken as a whole, it necessarily implies.

In the Hinds case, much of the argument was historical: separation of powers and independence of the judiciary simply was a basic feature of Westminster governance. But, as we saw in the excerpts, the Privy Council speaks of the “structure” of the Constitution on the Westminster model, and uses the term “necessary implications”. The structural argument is quite straightforward: Constitutions are the fundamental documents creating and detailing the division of powers among the governing institutions in society. A deliberate and intentional division into three separate wings, with specific duties attached to each wing, presupposes that (in the absence of clear contrary evidence), the Constitution requires that the domains that it has marked out for each of the wings be protected from encroachment by the others. Thus, separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary simply come out as structural corollaries of the Westminster-type Constitution.

Something along these lines was the reasoning of the Privy Council in Hinds. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court walked down a very different path: it held that separation and independence were constitutional “conventions”, and accordingly, had to be upheld. This is unfortunate, because of course the meaning of convention is, precisely, that which is not legally enforceable. Thus, the Court’s decision is deeply problematic on this point.

Notwithstanding that, however, these two issues remain fascinating for the debate over constitutional interpretation. The conservative/transformative model is perhaps truest to Indian history, and can serve as an interpretive guide to a number of provisions; and, constitutional provisions flowing necessarily from the structure of the Constitution can have as much legal force as the text itself. The judgment in Madras Bar Association opens the gates for a further decision to engage with and clarify these interpretive points; whether future courts will accept the invitation is something that remains to be seen.

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Filed under Colonial Statutes, Constitutional interpretation, Post-colonialism, Structural analysis

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