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The Politics Behind Pakistan’s Controversial Judicial Reform Plan

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The Politics Behind Pakistan’s Controversial Judicial Reform Plan

It is considering extending the term of Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who is known to be close to the Sharif government.

The Politics Behind Pakistan’s Controversial Judicial Reform Plan

In this photo released by the Pakistan’s President Office, Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa, right, administers the oath of office to newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace, in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 10, 2024.

Credit: Pakistan’s President Office via AP

Media reports of the government’s plans to initiate judicial reforms and constitutional amendments to fix the term of the chief justice of the Supreme Court have raised concern in Pakistan’s opposition circles about the government’s intentions.

The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) views the Shehbaz Sharif government’s reported plan to extend the tenure of the current Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa as a blatant attempt to undermine the integrity of the judicial system and protect the “interests of the incumbent government.” It has alleged that the proposed amendments are being made “on the dictation of powerful people.”

The question of judicial reforms appears to have become controversial even before the matter is taken up for discussion in parliament.

Minister for Law and Justice Senator Azam Nazeer Tarar’s statement that he “will not completely reject proposals regarding [fixing] the tenure of the chief justice” suggests that the government is willing to amend the established constitutional rules governing the retirement of the chief justice.

There is no fixed tenure for the chief justice of Pakistan under the current constitutional rules. Article 179 of the Constitution states that judges of the Supreme Court retain their office until 65 years of age.

Therefore, under the existing rules, Isa, who was appointed in September 2023 and is due to retire in October 2024, will remain in the position for another few months only.

Should his term be extended it would have significant implications for the judiciary’s internal affairs. It would result in the sidelining or hindering of the chances of other judges who were in line to become chief justice over the next few years. It could also undermine the credibility of the chief justice and the Supreme Court, as the extension would be perceived as a politically motivated decision.

The issue has raised questions about political interference in the independent functioning of Pakistan’s judiciary. However, it must be noted that the judiciary and judges have done more than the political establishment to undermine the judiciary’s credibility.

For instance, Isa is considered to be fairly sympathetic to the current ruling alliance led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. His predecessor, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, was regarded as more closely associated with the previous PTI administration.

Pakistan’s political parties are keener to have loyalists in key positions of the Supreme Court than judges who will effectively defend the constitution and hand out impartial judgments.

It is worth noting that the previous PTI government also sought to extend the retirement age for judges from 65 to 68 years, to retain judges favorable to their party. However, they were unable to pass the necessary legislation due to a lack of parliamentary majority.

Moreover, when the PTI was in power, it sought to remove Justice Isa from office and filed a presidential reference against him. Sharif retracted the reference in 2023, stating that his government did not intend to pursue the issue any longer.

With the disconnect between the PTI and Isa growing over time, the current government might be attempting to leverage it. There are indications that the government may attempt to amend the constitution to raise the retirement age for Supreme Court judges from 65 to 68 years.

This would allow the current chief justice to remain in office for an additional three years, potentially shielding the government from any judicial challenges in that time.

It is unclear whether the PTI-led opposition will be able to prevent the government from amending the constitution, as this needs a two-thirds majority. At most, the PTI can try to stir up controversy by announcing protests or by trying to get support from lawyers and judges. Other than rousing the party’s support base, the issue won’t benefit the party politically.

The PTI does not lack mass popularity at the moment. Rather, its main problem is its tumultuous relationship with state institutions, particularly the military and a section of the higher judiciary, which continue to undermine its political prospects.

An extended tenure for the current chief justice could allow him to shape the judiciary’s approach to key issues. It is crucial that the government reconsiders this course of action and formulates a constitutional framework that ensures the regular and predictable transition of power within the judiciary.

Upholding the independence and impartiality of the courts is essential for maintaining the rule of law and safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all citizens.