Slippery slope of justice

Justice Chaudhry retires, but the day of the 'judicial saviour' isn't over in Pakistan.

The chief justice of the supreme court of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is to retire on December 11. Partisans arrayed for and against the Chaudhry court say the date is ominous: 11/12/13. When he was elevated to the apex judiciary he was the youngest-ever judge to join. He became chief justice in 2005 and went aggressively "activist" from day one. The country probably deserved it because governance had hit rock bottom and terrorism was rampant on all fronts. The court had been supine to political machinations in the past; he "activated" it.

Judicial activism through public interest litigation, propelled by the device of suo motu jurisdiction, often declines into institutional trespass and this is what the Chaudhry court was soon perceived as doing, especially in the domain of economics, to whose "free market" dominance judges are instinctively hostile. After about 6,000 suo motu cases, a "legitimised"-by-the-court military general acting as president of the state, General Pervez Musharraf, imposed martial law to depose him and his loyal judges in 2007. The police even roughed him up when he was being "taken away" to his house-prison. But in 2008, an unprecedented nationwide lawyers' movement compelled the army to intervene and force the newly elected "democratic" but reluctant government to restore his "hyper-activist" court.

Justice Chaudhry controlled his fellow judges effectively. There was virtually no dissent on the bench, even in blatantly controversial decisions. He was at times too outspoken and blunt, a style that infected some of his bench, and showcased himself excessively among bars where lawyers ganging up against lower court judges often resorted to violence. He had street power. And he benefited from the political divide, the conflict between the army and the elected government, and even from terrorism, judging by the "compliments" showered on him by a Taliban spokesman just before his retirement.

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