Justice Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings have certainly given us food for thought. The issues raised by the hearings have received some expert commentary, including Jack Balkin’s insightful post on ‘constitutional rot’ (here) and the series of posts on the Law and Political Economy blog (here). While certain aspects of the confirmation hearings were unique to the American political and constitutional experience, India too has a well-documented struggle with judicial appointments and recently underwent its own moment of introspection on a key judicial figure with the retirement of former Chief Justice Dipak Misra.
In this post I ask the question, why are the stakes for a seat on the constitutional court so high? The way constitutional courts are designed certainly provides an immediate set of answers. There are only nine judges on the United States supreme court and they enjoy lifetime appointments, allowing a single judge to impact the outcome of cases for several decades. However, even in India where the supreme court consists of thirty-one judges having limited terms, the court and government have struggled to see eye-to-eye on judicial appointments. The court has repeatedly struck down attempts to reform the ‘collegium’ system, where judges themselves decide who should be appointed to the supreme court. In return, the government has refused to confirm the appointment of certain appointments made by the ‘collegium’ to the supreme court. Just this week, the Chief Justice took up the issue of the government ‘selectively’ confirming judicial appointments (here). In this post, I argue that it is the conduct and role of the court that has raised the stakes of judicial appointments to boiling point.
The conduct of the court, intended to curtail governmental overreach, has come to include detailed matters of public policy. Further, the court has become a centre of political power, advancing political views on deeply divisive issues. This piece does not seek to make an argument against judicial review, nor does it advocate, in the words of Mark Tushnet, taking the constitution away from the courts. However, in a month of historic outcomes for the Indian supreme court, it advocates some circumspect on the high stature of the court.
The role of judicial review
Part III (Fundamental Rights) of the Indian constitution explicitly recognises that individuals can approach the court, and the court can strike down government action that is incompatible with the fundamental rights. By allowing a law to be struck down on the grounds that it is incompatible with a fundamental right, the constitution recognises that an individual’s political interest cannot be subsumed by the general interest. A person’s fundamental rights must therefore be given appropriate weight when measured against the interests of the community. Famously, in the words of Dworkin, rights act as “trumps” in certain situations. The powers of the court are not strictly limited to invalidating government action, the court can, for example, direct the government to take certain actions to ensure fundamental rights are upheld (by a writ of mandamus). However, in practice, the actions of the court far exceed this.
Take the recent example of the court’s involvement in the Coordinator of National Registration (NRC) in Assam. Article 11 of the constitution states that parliament will have the power to create laws for the “acquisition and termination of citizenship and all other matters relating to citizenship.” However, the court not only ‘supervised’ the procedure by which thousands of individuals were added and omitted to the list of potential citizens, but it also determined which documents could be used to make a claim to citizenship. After the draft NRC was published, the court required re-verification of ten percent of the names would be required, so that the court could be satisfied that the list was accurate. By dictating what documents could be used by an individual to prove they were a citizen (the evidentiary standard for citizenship), the court effectively determined when an individual is a citizen.
Even more worrying was that the court acted to the exclusion of other branches of the government. For example, the court noted,
Having regard to the nature of the work that is involved in the process of upgrading the NRC, we direct the State Coordinator to submit a report to the Court. […] The above information will be laid before the Court by the State Coordinator without any consultation with any Authority whatsoever and without reverting to the State Government or any Authority in the Union Government.
As argued by the Attorney General, this exclusion of the governments hampers the task of the officers who must deal with the facts on the ground. The court also passed orders on when the draft had to be published, if the NRC officers were permitted to speak to the press, and whether they needed police protection. The Court’s excruciatingly detailed supervision was showcased when the state government argued that more time was required to complete the NRC because of local panchayat elections. The court noted,
we, however, permit the State Government to take the services of one Additional Deputy Commissioner in each district who may be currently engaged in the NRC work and deploy the said officer in each district for the work connected with the Panchayat Elections.
The court’s conduct vis-à-vis the NRC is not a case of judicial review where an individual’s rights are aggrieved by state action. Determining how and when officers should be stationed is a distributive choice on how the nation’s resources are utilised. In close to a decade of hearing the case, the court has never once referred to either the fundamental rights at stake or even the government action that is the subject of judicial review. When the attorney general argued that certain aspects of the case were best left to the executive, the court cited executive inaction as a justification for court supervision. The NRC is not an isolated case, the court has laid down and monitored the India’s forest policy for over two decades in the (still ongoing) writ petition Godavarman v Union of India. While the pitfalls associated with the court assuming such a role are not the subject of this piece, it is evident that the conduct of the court is no longer limited to judicial review. It can compel even a government that is not seeking to undermine constitutional provisions to expend resources on certain goals that the court designates as important. The court is not merely a ‘check on governmental power’, but itself a powerful centre for policy on how the country should be run.
The court as a centre of politics
The court has also used its power to advanced political ideas on deeply divisive issues. The most recent example of this is the court’s decision in the Sabarimala case, where the court struck down the restriction on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple. To understand the political significance of the judgement, it is necessary to appreciate the centrality of secularism to the Indian constitution, so a quick recap is called for.
Article 25(1) reads,
Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.
Article 26 goes on to note that,
every religious denomination shall have the right […] to manage its own affairs in matters of religion
This inherent tension in the constitution highlights both the disagreement that existed over the extent of State interference in religion and the requirement for continuity/ communal harmony, as well as the sharp contradictions that existed between the aspirational goals of the constitution and surrounding society. As Gary Jacobsohn notes, “So deep was religion’s penetration into Indian life, and so historically entwined was it in the configuration of a social structure that was by any reasonable standard, grossly unjust, that […] State intervention in the spiritual domain could not be constitutionally foreclosed.” Yet it is precisely this deep penetration of religion that leads to an inherent tension between the aspirational social-reform goals of the constitution and the requirement for communal harmony. The drafters of the constitution, operating in the shadow of partition, were acutely aware of the essential role of religion in social life. Thus, while social reform through State action was necessary, the acknowledgement of religious autonomy and permitting “culturally inflected interests” to be represented were essential to the maintenance of democracy in India. Thus, Indian secularism required a balance between socio-economic reform of religion and tolerance of the deeply engrained and pluralistic practices existing across the country.
This is precisely the tension that the Sabarimala judgement brought to the forefront, down to the opinions of the judges. When Justice Malhotra argues for the validity of the ban on women entering the temple, she does so on grounds of respect for religious pluralism, while Justice Chandrachud gives voice to the argument that State intervention in certain situations is warranted. Of course, the rub lies in when such intervention is warranted, and who can ask for such intervention.
The religious sphere is certainly open to interference by the constitutional promise of social reform, but as Jacobsohn notes, “the legitimacy of this undertaking is at least partially dependent on preserving political space for religious identity.” By taking up the case, the court reduced this political space to the respondent’s lawyers in the courtroom. By striking down the ban, the court has struck down the practice of a religious group on the grounds of social reform at the behest of individuals who are not members of that religious group. This certainly alters the subtle constitutional balance between the social-reform goals of the constitution and the promise of communal harmony. As we have seen, the place of religion in Indian society is deeply contested. Yet the court’s seemingly insulated position often obscures the fact that the court is a vigorous and powerful participant in this contestation.
Given everything set out above, it is clear why the political class might seek to entrench allies in the judiciary, and consequently why, the judicial appointment process becomes contentious. Unlike in the United States, where judges are appointed by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislature, in India we have the collegium system, whereby senior judges appoint junior members of the court. While perhaps less partisan that the American court, the Indian court is no less political. As Anuj Bhuwania notes, the court’s PIL jurisdiction grants “blanket powers to judges to act as per their ideological beliefs in order to help the poor and promote distributive justice.” One would be hard pressed to find a politician who argue that his role differed from this role of the courts, except for the politician, blanket powers remain a forlorn dream.
This post sought to highlight why a place on the court is important. It is important because the court has endowed itself with vast powers and these powers are used to implement the policy and to drive the politics of the court.
The role of the court in its present iteration raises the age-old problem of political legitimacy. The court is an unelected body. As Jeremy Waldron notes, it is far easier to explain to someone who holds a contrary political opinion that, “Everyone’s votes were counted, and your side got fewer votes” than it is to say, your principled argument lost 4-1 on the constitutional bench. Can one approach the thousands of protestors at Sabarimala with the majority opinion in hand and expect immediate acceptance? What we are truly concerned about is the court exercising its expansive powers without the legitimate authority to do so. The protests against Justice Kavanaugh no doubt in part stemmed from the fact that this one man would have the power to decide whether millions of women could abort unwanted pregnancies or not. To ask if such a system is desirable is to ask where the legitimate authority to govern us comes from. Is it the constitution, the democratic process, a learned judge, or some combination of them all? Until then, we should prepare ourselves for the next round of high stakes judge selection.