On the first working day of a new chief justice who was almost not the new chief justice due to a witch-hunt, the country’s Supreme Court allowed – for the first time in the country’s history – the live telecast of the apex court’s proceedings. The case under question yesterday was hearing the petitions challenging the SC (Practice and Procedure) Act 2023. That this was done in front of a full court bench pretty much sets the tone for CJ Isa’s tenure. A full court bench had been a sustained request from the past chief justice, something that just never materialized. Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa has not only constituted a full-court bench on his first day in office, but gone ahead full speed with holding a day-long hearing in full view of a rather rapt TV audience as well. Not only that, in what some may see as symbolism but which goes much much beyond that, the CJ first took oath with his wife standing right next to him and then went on to appoint Jazeela Aslam as the first female SC registrar. This is no doubt a chief justice who has not just hit the ground running but sprinting.
Legal analysts had been saying that CJ Isa’s many tasks will include healing a fractured judiciary but also swiftly deciding on issues such as the general election, military court trials etc. Previously, CJ Isa had excused himself from sitting on benches until the matter of the SC Practice and Procedure law was settled and this is precisely why it made sense for the first question to be opened up for a hearing to be this law. Once this matter is settled, the apex court can then go on and hear other important cases. For many years now, lawyers, bar councils and even judges have been noting that the suo-motu powers and bench-formation powers of the chief justice have to be regulated so that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary does not come under question. Which is what the bill titled Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill 2023 is said to be aimed at: curtailing the powers of the CJP and also giving the right to appeal in all suo-motu cases with retrospective effect. In a preemptive hearing in April this year, the Supreme Court had given an ‘anticipatory injunction’ regarding the law, and barred its implementation. Monday’s hearing, which went right into the evening, has now been adjourned till October 3 while all parties have been directed to submit their replies by September 25.
While the hearing and its arguments are naturally important as is what happens after the matter is decided, the televised proceedings of the court have led to some debate. One side believes in letting the sunshine in and demystifying the top court and thereby making it more transparent for any layperson, while on the other side there is a word of caution that perhaps this may be too much demystification of judges and lawyers alike – the latter argument though still a minority opinion with across-the-aisle approval largely regarding the broadcast of court proceedings. As the novelty of the live proceedings wears off, there is hope that a proper channel – something like C-SPAN perhaps – be dedicated to these proceedings. For many, the fact that Chief Justice Isa has managed to get a full court together this quickly – and formed benches with the consultation of two senior judges of the SC – is a sign that he is also serious about ending the polarization that has haunted the apex court for a while now as well as practically not wielding the master of the roster position as solitary power. CJP Isa has many challenges ahead but one of the main challenges is to restore the credibility of the Supreme Court, which has been dented somewhat during some controversial past tenures and judgments. Going by comments from lawyers and political analysts alike, Monday has been a good start for a Supreme Court that is faced with unprecedented constitutional questions.