Checking judicial populism & policymaking

Judges should not make policy

All manner of players moved into the space created by a combination of the extreme weakness of the Executive and the logjam of the Legislative over the past decade. In stepped ‘civil society activists’, large non-governmental organisations and the judiciary. Of these only the last has constitutional legitimacy and therefore, judicial actions deserve a lot more scrutiny by those who wish to safeguard the Indian republic.

Let’s set corruption and other malpractices aside for now. What should concern the republic is the role the judiciary sees for itself. Instead of concerning itself with its core functions: adjudicating on civil, criminal and constitutional matters, it has entered domains and taken positions that risk further damaging both constitutional balance and good policymaking.

This is about propriety of process, not merits of the outcome. For instance, it made little sense for the Supreme Court to rule that radio spectrum should always be auctioned. Sure, auctions are one of the best ways to allocate scarce national resources, but the absoluteness of a Supreme Court verdict makes it impossible for the government to say, promote innovation in the wireless industry through a different scheme of spectrum allocation. This is just an example: public policies are best made by the Executive because of the need for flexibility and discretion. When policies arise out of Supreme Court judgements, they do so at the cost of undermining democracy, federalism and quite often, common sense.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced that it will set up a “Social Justice” bench, for:

To mention summarily, about the release of food grains lying in stocks for the use of people living in drought affected areas; to take steps to prevent untimely death of women and children for want of nutritious food; providing hygienic mid – day meal besides issues relating to children; to provide night shelter to destitute and homeless; to provide medical facilities to all citizens irrespective of their economic conditions; to provide hygienic drinking water; to provide safety and secured living conditions for the fair gender who are forced into prostitution etc. are some of the areas where Constitutional mechanism has to play a proactive role in order to meet the goals of the Constitution. [Quoted from Bar and Bench]

This move is problematic along several dimensions. First, it is yet another “fast track court” among many fast track courts. Fast track courts sound good, but work well when there are very few of them, and used very sparingly. A lot of permanent fast track courts slow down the entire system (and according to Supreme Court’s latest figures, it has around 65,000 pending cases.)

Second, by shunting public interest litigations (PIL) onto this social justice bench, it is presuming the PILs only ought to be about social justice. Surely citizens of India must be allowed to file PILs about other important public matters, which may not concern social justice.

Third, the mandate of the special bench is a massive intrusion into policymaking and sets a particular social agenda in concrete. Even the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution were unwilling to do this, for they rightly felt that every generation must have the freedom to solve social problems in the light of their own wisdom and experience. The argument that the Preamble of the Constitution calls for social justice doesn’t wash: the preamble applies to the whole purpose of the republic, not a specific task for the Supreme Court. Moreover, going by the Court’s logic, will it now also create benches for economic justice, political justice, liberty, equality and fraternity as well, as they are all cited in the Preamble? If not, why single out social justice?

From recent comments and the announcement of this social justice bench, it appears that the Court is concerned that the Modi government is likely to reverse the social justice policies introduced by the UPA governments. Even if this impression is accurate, it is not for the Supreme Court to protect specific ideological persuasions, either its own, or of previous governments. In a famous case on Barack Obama’s healthcare policy, the US Supreme Court noted

Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.[Reason]

That is a fine principle for the Supreme Court of India too.

The judiciary will fulfil its constitutional role if it performs its core functions well. This means dispensing justice, not hardcoding policy, and certainly not acting in ways that “satisfy the desire of society”. The best way to ensure justice—social, political and economic—is for it to speed up the judicial system. For all the Supreme Court’s exertions, there seems to be little by way of fixing this central problem. The Court should detail how it intends to become more efficient and effective, and demand the same of the Executive and Legislature.

2 thoughts on “Checking judicial populism & policymaking”

  1. Very timely comments. I am quite worried by the recent utterances of the senior judges of supreme court from various social platforms. Many of these comments surly encroaches in policy making domain of elected members of the country and executive branch of Govt.

    Democracy is a very delicate and fragile philosophy. It has to be nurtured with utmost care and compassion. The President,Judiciary,Election Commission,Parliament and Media all have to ensure mutual exclusive space. Otherwise we would skid on banana republic skin.

  2. Dear Nitin,

    This is a VERY troubling development! As you have rightly pointed out, it is a massive intrusion into policy making. Unfortunately, the way the constitution is set up, it appears that there is no one who can restrain rogue judges of the Supreme Court! Can anything be done? For instance, can judges be impeache by the executive for over-stepping their authority? Otherwise the Supreme Court can de facto try to run the country, and essentially destroy whatever governance agenda the Modi sarkar might have. Your thoughts in this direction would be most welcome.

    I have a different take on this development compared to you. I doubt that the “Honourable” Supreme Court judges care two hoots about Nehruvian socialism versus Modi’s brand of citizen services, or anything ideological. They have been seething with rage ever since the Modi government ended the cozy arrangement whereby the Supreme Court judges chose their own successors, with the government of the day obliged merely to rubber stamp them.

    Best wishes.

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