The apparent rift between judges of the Supreme Court is proving embarrassing not just for the judiciary, but also Pakistan as a whole. Long rumored to be rumbling under the surface, it came to the fore when two judges—Justices Mansoor Ali Shah and Jamal Khan Mandokhail—penned a dissenting note to the suo motu ruling directing elections in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa within 90 days “with the barest minimum deviation.” The note opened a virtual Pandora’s Box by indicating that four judges—two of them removed from the bench by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial—had rejected the maintainability of the suo motu, while three had validated it. The note further lamented the power of the “one man show” enjoyed by the office of the CJP, emphasizing that the apex court cannot be solely dependent on the “solitary decision of one man.”
The note, coupled with allegations of bias from political parties within the government, has triggered speculation that the CJP “managed” a preferred verdict by changing judges hearing the suo motu over a delay in elections. Clearly, there is politics involved, particularly between the PTI and the ruling government, which wants general elections to be held nationwide in October 2023 rather than piecemeal after the premature dissolution of the Punjab and KP assemblies. The CJP’s repeated refusal to form a full court bench and persistent inclusion of judges perceived as partial to the PTI for cases related to the party has furthered this divide. The situation has been worsened by an order issued with a 2-1 majority directing the suspension of all cases registered under Article 184(3) of the Constitution until rules can be framed for the fixing of benches.
Unfortunately, the judicial split has dented the “clear legal vision” expected from the apex court, damaging its “moral” standing before the public. The general perception of the judicial system is now largely negative, primarily due to the questionable conduct of judges who issue controversial remarks and verdicts. What has filled that vacuum is “condemnatory” rhetoric popularized by Imran Khan and now being increasing responded to in kind by Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, as representatives of their respective parties. Today, the judiciary is more controversial than ever before, unable to introduce sanity into a factionalized situation. Pakistan has reached another point of crisis, this time in the judiciary, which is failing to fulfill its role as a neutral arbiter.