The curtains have finally closed for the Chief Justice. The infamous Umar Ata Bandial, whose name has now become a household utterance for millions of Pakistanis around the world, interested in politics or not, navigated through judicial crises few could have predicted when he took the reins to become the apex jurist of the Supreme Court of Pakistan early last year. In the year and a half that he has managed to adroitly navigate through instability in all its forms in the country, most circumnavigating around PTI chairman Imran Khan, he has produced some moments of notoriety on both sides of Pakistan’s traditional political spectra. From memories of convening courts at the stroke of midnight to reinstate the National Assembly, which inevitably led to the vote of no confidence that removed the former premier Khan from office, to declaring the very same man’s arrest by the NAB as illegitimate in the eyes of the law, the outgoing Chief Justice’s tenure is, simply put, egregious.
It is a spectacle of modern jurisprudence to witness the sanctity of the Supreme Court tarnished before one’s eyes. It is even more so when this is done by a sole offender. Cracks and creaks within the judicial framework are most notably left behind by overstepping one’s bounds. In the former Chief Justice’s case, this is all too familiar. By delving into parliamentary matters whenever his interest was piqued, a dangerous precedent reverberates across Pakistan’s already-fragile political landscape. This is a man who could not confine himself to writing a dissenting opinion to communicate his grievances with his colleagues; instead, he would invoke a suo moto decision at his discretion whenever a judgment contradicted his personal convictions.
The dissolution of the separation of powers within a democratic society should be the greatest concern of its citizens. However, perhaps this is not the case. Due to Mr. Bandial’s actions, the ordinary citizen’s trust in the Supreme Court has dwindled to a point where few take the institution seriously, if at all. Under his purview, a reinterpretation of the constitution was undertaken to advance his own beliefs, and possibly those of his family. Earlier this year, an alleged telephone conversation between Mr. Bandial’s mother-in-law and a lawyer representing the PTI surfaced, expressing their disdain for the previous coalition government, disregarding the principle of conflict of interest.
This conflict of interest not only intruded into matters overseen by the coalition government but also delved into Mr. Bandial’s personal inclinations. The man who frequently brushed aside his colleagues’ advice took it upon himself to handle a governmental notification. A commission tasked with investigating the aforementioned alleged audio leaks, to be overseen by the now-Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, was dismissed by Mr. Bandial as potentially “interfering” with the internal operations of the apex court, citing flaws in how the notification was issued.
It is evident that Mr. Bandial had no regard for his senior colleagues. Junior judges were given precedence over longstanding ones. The erosion of trust within the apex court reached an unimaginable zenith when a 9-member bench assembled to adjudicate the delay in elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab province was reduced to a mere 3-member bench. The concerns of Mr. Bandial’s colleagues, particularly those of Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Athar Minallah, were relegated to whispers. This is not to forget that the incoming Chief Justice, Qazi Faez Isa, faced relentless targeting during the transition period from one Chief Justice to another.
The Supreme Court Practice and Procedure Act of 2023, enacted in accordance with Article 191 of the 1973 Constitution, was passed by the parliament to regulate the powers of the Chief Justice concerning suo moto decisions and similar matters. Not wanting to be subordinated, notwithstanding the constitution, Mr. Bandial disregarded this legislation.
What can we learn from this relic of Pakistan’s judiciary? Firstly, the parliament did not overstep its bounds when it sought to regulate the position of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Just as a prime minister, president, or top brass of the armed forces can be scrutinized, it is entirely appropriate for the judiciary’s highest authority to be subjected to similar oversight. It is hoped that the new Chief Justice will concur.