Concerns about the “unfettered” powers of the Chief Justice of Pakistan have long been a political talking point, but are now also emerging from within the Supreme Court, reflecting a new front in the polarization prevalent nationwide. In a dissenting note, two judges of the apex court manifested their discomfort with CJP Umar Ata Bandial, stressing that “in order to strengthen our institution and to ensure public trust and public confidence in our court, it is high time that we revisited the power of ‘one-man show’ enjoyed by the office of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.” The 28-page order has highlighted a major, and unprecedented, rift within the judiciary, noting that the “jurisdiction of a court is determined by the Constitution and laws, not by caprice or convenience of the judges … When caprice and convenience of the judges take over, we enter the era of an imperial Supreme Court.”
Even before this order, it was clear to all and sundry that the apex court was divided. Justices Mansoor Ali Shah and Jamal Khan Mandokhail have reinforced this view, maintaining that the court “cannot be dependent on the solitary decision of one man, the chief justice, but must be regulated through a rule-based system approved by all judges of the court under Article 191 of the Constitution, in regulating the exercise of its jurisdiction under Article 184(3) including the exercise of suo motu jurisdiction.” The airing of these concerns in a public document suggests the CJP is unwilling to listen to the apprehensions of his fellow judges, heralding a breakdown of the country’s legal system amidst the chaos inflicted by the ongoing state of war between the ruling coalition and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
It is clear that this judicial rift is, at least partly, motivated by the perception of a section of the Supreme Court favoring the PTI, who the multi-party Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) does not wish to see return to power on a wave of public support. It is unfortunate that the judicial crisis is adding to the societal polarization, even as most independent experts agree that curtailing the CJP’s unilateral powers of forming benches and taking suo motu notice is a long overdue reform.