Eye of the needle

A full court meeting of the Supreme Court judges on Sunday concluded that the finalised interim constitution (IC) runs counter to the concept of an independent judiciary, and it unanimously came up with thirteen counts of constitutional amendment. Among the recommendations vis-a-vis the IC provisions: the Constitutional Council (CC), instead of the Prime Minister though on the CC’s recommendation, should appoint the Chief Justice; the CJ should take his oath of office before other SC judges, who, in turn, should be sworn in by the CJ, not Parliament; the new provision for removal of any SC judge on grounds of physical or mental infirmity through impeachment should be scrapped; and the annual SC report should not be presented to Parliament for discussion.

Some of the judges’ recommendations make sense. For example, the suggestions for oath-taking in a manner prescribed by the constitution, specifying that the CJ can give only administrative — not judicial — directions to the lower courts, and scrapping the provision of impeachment for infirmity merit consideration. But the judges have eroded their own public credibility so much over the years that most people are likely to view with suspicion even their suggestions. Indeed, the 1990 Constitution had made the judiciary fully independent, but certain judges could not uphold the sanctity of the constitution and the dignity of their office. When the 1990 Constitution was hijacked, they had gone along with this unconstitutional step. Then not a single SC judge expressed any qualms about taking an oath of office before the then ruler. There is no dearth of examples.

The IC provides for full independence of the judiciary. The question is if the judges themselves will be equal to the task. And here, nobody should forget that the interim statute is the result of the April revolution, which the political parties agreed to halt just short of its climax in favour of settling all issues through the constituent assembly (CA) polls. This IC is therefore a transitional arrangement, and the permanent constitution is yet to come. If there is any compelling case for immediate rectification in the IC, the interim legislature could take care of it after extensive deliberations. But any changes even before its promulgation would not only send wrong signals to the people but also belittle the status and authority of the IC in the public eye. The judges should do some self-introspection — such as, how they could defend, in the name of judicial independence, their recommendation for judges’ eligibility for political appointment after retirement, why the judges who collaborated with the royal regime should continue in their office whereas popularly elected MPs are barred from the interim legislature just because they had sided with the royal regime, and how the continuance in office of the judges who attract the needle of public suspicion, such as those against whom the Public Accounts Committee recommended impeachement, promotes an independent and impartial judiciary.