On the role of courts: and why the supreme court is playing the waiting game

On the Supreme Court’s last working day of 2019, it agreed to hear the constitutional challenge to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (“CAA”). With this, the court takes into its winter vacation the challenges to the CAA, the amendment of Article 370 and the internet shutdowns in Kashmir. Outside the cloistered halls of the court, the public debate over the legality and desirability of these measures has reached fever pitch. With both the legal and political processes of contestation in full swing, it is an appropriate time to examine how divorced the two truly are.

Our trust in courts as institutions of justice flows from a few key ideas: that courts are isolated from short term political pressures, they decide on the basis of settled legal principles irrespective of how politically sensitive a case is, and they are independent from the elected government of the day and thus serve as a check on government power. This piece critically examines these assumptions about courts. I argue that while courts do decide cases in accordance with legal principles, the actual outcomes of crucial constitutional cases balance the requirements of the law, deference to the government, and deference to public sentiment. Recognising that alongside normative legal principles, public sentiment and the government have a crucial role to play in constitutional adjudication re-emphasises the need for active political contestation and debate over these issues.

Isolation, independence and matters of principle

Courts are understood as being isolated from short term political pressures. Unlike elected legislators, who are accountable to their constituents and respond to their immediate needs, unelected judges with fixed tenures and salaries can deliberate in a ‘neutral’ manner and render decisions that may be politically unpopular but necessary for the long term preservation of human rights and democracy. Judges are not bound by party ideology or the need to garner the popular vote, so they can arrive at substantively ‘better’ decisions. For example, after a terrorist attack, public sentiment may overwhelmingly favour the torture and public execution of a captured terrorist. The government, acting on the demands of the electorate, may decide to torture and execute the terrorist (after all, good government responds to what the people want). The courts however, isolated from public sentiment and understanding the long-term benefits of upholding the rule of law and human rights, can ensure the captured terrorist receives a fair trial.

A second assumption underpinning the public trust in courts is that courts rely on precedent (stare decisis) and settled legal principles to decide cases. Therefore, once courts construe the phrase ‘equality’ or ‘liberty’ as having an expansive meaning, the same expansive interpretation will subsequently be applied irrespective of how politically significant or insignificant the facts of a case. This is often why progressive judgements are celebrated, because we presume that the reasoning of these judgements will bind future benches of the court and lower courts. The last, and perhaps most significant, assumption about courts is that they stand independent from the elected government. Coupled with their isolation from short-term political pressures and their commitment to decide cases on legal principles, this leads to the overarching argument that courts stand as a check against the abuse of government power.

A chequered track record

A close examination of the track record of courts during periods of regularised and flagrant human rights violations casts doubt on the argument that courts are effective checks on majoritarian government power. In India, the most famous example of the court’s failure to resist the use of government power is ADM Jabalpur v S S Shukla. The case, heard at the height of the emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her election was challenged in 1975, centred around whether individuals detained by the government (often political opponents of the Prime Minister) had a right to approach the courts for relief during the emergency. Despite several High Courts holding that detained persons had a right to approach the court even during an emergency, in ADM Jabalpur the Supreme Court held that no such right existed and left the detentions to the sole supervision of the government. The Indian Supreme Court is not alone in turning a blind eye to the exercise of government power against its citizens during times of national or political crisis. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry in Korematsu v United States – citing the overriding needs of national security and avoidance of espionage. In Liversidge v Anderson the House of Lords held that the Home Secretary did not have to objectively justify his detention order with reasons and the such matters were not justiciable in courts. These cases have since been overruled or denounced as ‘black marks’ on an otherwise unblemished record of judicial history, but they serve as powerful reminders that when governments exercised their power against citizens in the most extreme ways, courts have been found to be inadequate protectors.

Sabarimala – the Supreme Court’s problem child

A prime example of how far the Indian Supreme Court’s behaviour can stray from the core assumptions we associate with courts acting as politically insulated institutions dispensing justice according to legal principles is the court’s treatment of the Sabarimala dispute. To recap: in 2018 a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple as violating the constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination. The judgement led to a public backlash in Kerala (the state where the Sabarimala temple is situated). Those opposing the judgement took the law into their own hands and refused to permit the entry of women into the temple, often attacking women who tried to enter. A review petition was filed against the 2018 judgement, the significant irregularities of which have already been addressed on this blog (here) and do not need to be rehashed. It is sufficient to note that one judge (Khanwilkar J) refused to stand by the judgement he had signed less than a year ago in 2018 and in November 2019 the court decided that the 2018 judgement needed to be ‘reconsidered’ by a larger bench. To understand what happened next, it is important to note that by referring the dispute to a larger bench, the court did not stay the 2018 judgement but merely kept the review petition pending. The pendency of a review petition does not deprive a judgement from having the force of law. This means that at the time of writing this post, the 2018 judgement remains good law and a woman should be able to enter Sabarimala. When the Supreme Court was asked to direct the Kerala Government to uphold and enforce the judgement, the Chief Justice of India acknowledged that there was no stay on the 2018 judgement, but refused to direct the State Government to enforce the judgement – noting the matter was “very emotive” and the court wanted to avoid violence.

The treatment of Sabarimala is a testament to how the Indian Supreme Court consider both legal principles and public sentiment in deciding constitutional cases. The 2018 judgement was based precisely on the legal principles we associate with constitutional courts. However, unlike the court’s decisions decriminalising consensual gay sex or adultery, where the court’s decision faced widespread and organised public resistance, the court did a double take, refusing to enforce its judgement and stating that the judgement itself needed to be ‘reconsidered’. The ‘settled’ legal principles of equality laid down in 2018 (which we expect to bind future courts) succumbed to the changed political landscape of 2019. Changing public sentiment leading to the court ‘flip-flopping’ on outcomes is not new, and not always detrimental to the rights of citizens. For example, in 2013 the Indian Supreme Court refused to decriminalise consensual gay sex but five years later the court did decriminalise it. It is perfectly possible for future benches to disagree with past ones; however, the incremental nature of such change is essential to maintain the public trust that courts are insulated from the politics of the day. The casting in doubt of Sabarimala within a year, in the face of abject and consistent non-compliance with the judgement by the government and citizens, points to just how thin the court’s veneer of being insulated from public sentiment and deciding cases purely on legal principles is.

Plenty has been written on why the CAA is unconstitutional and should be struck down for violating Article 14 and its resultant jurisprudence (including here on this blog). However, the very idea that the court will apply the legal principles it has previously laid down is caveated by the court’s regular deviation from settled principles in the face of troubling ground realities or persistent public sentiment to the contrary.

Judicial independence 

The last assumption is that courts stand independent of the government and form the ultimate protectors of individual rights against state action. Historically, we have seen that this has not always been the case. As a matter of constitutional design, courts control neither the ‘sword nor the purse’. In other words, courts rely on the government to implement and abide by their decisions. The extent to which the government does so is a function of how much public legitimacy and authority the court wields at any given time. In a handful of jurisdictions, court have over centuries entrenched themselves to a point where non-compliance with their judgements is unthinkable and a government refusing to comply with a court judgement would risk being voted out of power by an electorate that deeply values the rule of law. For example, when the British Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to suspend parliament was found to be unconstitutional by the U.K. Supreme Court, the question was not whether the Prime Minister would comply with the decision, but rather whether he would apologise to the Queen and British public.

In most jurisdictions however, where courts have not had the time or opportunity (or have squandered both) to create a deep sense of institutional credibility and win the public trust, courts are far more vulnerable to government interference.  If a court were to repeatedly strike down government action, the government can register its discontent with the court in several ways. The most common (and visible) tactic is to delay/interfere with the process of judicial appointments. Right from Indira Gandhi’s appointment of A N Ray as Chief Justice (superseding the three senior most judges of the Supreme Court who had ruled against her government) to the current government’s delays in confirming judges, Indian courts have regularly been susceptible to government pressure over judicial appointments. The government may also refuse to provide funding and infrastructure for courts. At the extreme, the government can simply refuse to comply with or implement the judgements of the court. The Indian Home Minister’s recent suggestion that the non-implementation of Supreme Court judgements was an acceptable state of affairs runs dangerously close to an outright refusal to acknowledge the authority of the court. In such situations, courts must not only apply the law, but also balance the needs of the law with deference to the government to ensure the court’s continued survival as an institution.

Indian jurisprudence is replete with such deference. In 1975 when the Allahabad High Court found the then Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) guilty of corrupt practices and invalidated her electoral victory, the government passed a constitutional amendment designed specifically to nullify the invalidation. In the Supreme Court, the constitutional amendments were struck down, but the Prime Minister’s election victory was upheld, allowing Indira Gandhi to remain in power. In Maneka Gandhi v the Union the petitioner’s passport was impounded, and no reasons provided. She approached the court contending that her right to a fair trial and to put forth her defence had been taken away. In a sweeping judgement, the court significantly expanded the scope and rigour of scrutiny, holding that procedure by which liberties are infringed must be ‘fair, reasonable and just’. However, rather than invalidate the order impounding of the passport or the provisions of the Passport Act, the court took on record the Attorney General’s assurance that the government would ‘consider’ the court’s observations and left the matter to the government. Ironically, the last paragraph of Maneka Gandhi (widely touted as a high watermark of Indian human rights jurisprudence) reads:

“The Attorney General assured us that all the grounds urged before us by the petitioner and the grounds that may be urged before the authority will be properly considered by the authority and appropriate orders passed. In the result, I hold that the petitioner is not entitled to any of the fundamental rights enumerated-in Article 19 of the Constitution and that the Passport Act complies with the requirements of Art. 21 of the Constitution and is in accordance with the procedure established by law.”

The Chief Justice’s recent refusal to pass directions for the entry of women at Sabarimala stems in part from the fact that both the Kerala Government and Central Government have indicated their unwillingness to carry out such directions. An order directing the authorities to enforce the judgement would likely be ignored by both governments, triggering a constitutional crisis.

The present day

Having understood that while not entirely independent, the court is undoubtedly uniquely situated, let us examine the court’s recent decisions where the stakes for the government were particularly high. In its Aadhar judgement, the court upheld the government’s collection and use of bio-metric data as part of the Aadhar scheme. The court in 2018 also held the Aadhar Act was correctly certified by the Speaker as a money bill (meaning it was not subject to scrutiny by the Rajya Sabha). But a year later in Rodger Matthew v South Indian Bank the court held that the Aadhar judgement’s reasoning on the issue of money bill was “arguably liberal [in favour of the government]” and “not convincingly reasoned”. The question of how future courts should construe money bills has been referred to a larger bench but peel away the Supreme Court’s strategic antics and the decision in Rodger Matthews is a damming admission that the Aadhar Act was unconstitutional but still upheld by the court.

The Supreme Court’s treatment of the petitions challenging the internet shutdown and detentions in Kashmir and the amendment of Article 370 has been the clearest example of the court’s deference to the government of the day. On 16 September 2019 the court passed an order (analysed here) which didn’t require the government to disclose the legal source of the internet shutdown and left it to the unrestricted discretion of the government to make “endeavours” to restore “normal life”. On 16 December 2019 the internet shutdown in Kashmir entered its 134th day, the longest ever recorded in a democracy. At the time of writing this post, the court is yet to adjudicate on the constitutionality of the internet shut down and the hearings challenging the actual amendment of Article 370 have just taken off.

Recall that vulnerable courts are often called upon to balance the meaning of the law with ensuring a working relationship with the government. After 70 years of democratic constitutionalism, our courts are certainly robust enough to avoid obliteration at the hands of the government. They regularly strike down state and central government actions found to be violative of the Constitution. However, with cases such as Aadhar, Sabarimala, the CAA and Kashmir, where the political stakes for the government are exceptionally high, cracks begin to emerge in the court’s multi-faceted balancing act between the law, public sentiment and deference to the government. In ADM Jabalpur the court compromised its fidelity to the integrity of the law and allowed the government a free reign in return for its continued survival (the supersession of Justice Khanna and the regular transfer of ‘non-complaint’ High Court judges by the government is telling in this regard). Today’s court is neither willing to expressly compromise its intellectual fidelity to the law nor its necessary relationship with the government – and so it sits on the fence, hoping that nobody will notice. The court does not trust its institutional legitimacy is strong enough to rule against the government on politically sensitive matters and continue to maintain a working relationship with the government (the government is equally to blame for this lack of trust). While it also refuses to expressly abandon its fidelity to the integrity of the law (as it did in ADM Jabalpur) and provide express judicial acquiescence of the government’s actions, its refusal to act is fast achieving a similar result indirectly.

Conclusion

Recognising that the central assumptions held about courts as counter-majoritarian institutions are flawed is the first step towards understanding the actions of the Supreme Court recently. The court undoubtedly analyses and applies legal principles on a day to day basis. However, in deciding constitutional cases with high political stakes, courts also consider the impact the decision will have on the government (Aadhaar and Kashmir), the prevailing public sentiment of the day, and the impact on the ground (Sabarimala). Absent any enforcement powers, the court’s is as bold as it thinks the government and people will allow it to be.

In deciding the host of thorny issues on its plate in 2020, the Supreme Court is likely to consider the prevailing public sentiment, strive to maintain a working relationship with the government, and lay down some important law. While the court’s legal questions will be answered by a handful of lawyers in Courtroom 1, the question of how strictly the court will apply the law to fulfil its constitutional role as a meaningful check on government power will be answered by every other Indian. This calls for renewed scrutiny of the court’s actions that denude the legitimacy of its decision making process (some examples include the use of sealed covers, the (mis)use of the master of the roster role, a flawed appointment process and the regular overriding of High Courts). Such actions not only violate core legal norms, but also reduce the public trust in the institution, reducing its institutional authority to act as a check on government power. Understanding the limitations of courts also highlights the need to strengthen the accountability and contestation within other wings of government beginning with our electoral and parliamentary processes.

3 thoughts on “On the role of courts: and why the supreme court is playing the waiting game

  1. Great Article. Any ideas on the [constitutional] importance of the NLSIU letter? I am not aware… did you sign it, Gautam? Great idea to have blog pieces signed by 500 or 600 and not just expect a judicial quotation. Don’t you think your blog pieces are better than letters such as the NLSIU letter!? It would be of grand help if you can help define a peaceful protest. And whether or not these ‘letters’, instead of court petitions, actually add to the peace or rob from the same? Overall is it just Annexure P/1. Honest questions. Lots to learn from you.
    IN RE: https://rudrajyotinathray.com/2019/12/22/the-myth-of-peaceful-protest/

  2. Therefore the need arises for a re-examination of independent role of the judiciary vis a vis the govt.by an independent body of legal experts & appropriate amendments made to the constitution ensuring immunity to courts against govt actions/inactions

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