Lessons in judicial restraint
In a democracy, the remedy for a malfunctioning legislature and executive must come from the people, not the judiciary
It is evident that the Pakistan Supreme Court has embarked on a perilous path of confrontation with the political authorities, which can only have disastrous consequences for the country. Recently its Chief Justice said that the Constitution, not Parliament, is supreme. This is undoubtedly settled law since the historical decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Marbury vs. Madison (1803).
The grave problem, however, that courts are often faced with is this: on the one hand, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and, on the other hand, in the garb of interpreting the Constitution, the court must not seek an unnecessary confrontation with the legislature, particularly since the legislature consists of representatives democratically elected by the people.
The solution was provided in the classical essay “The Origin and Scope of the American Doctrine of Constitutional Law” published in 1893 in the Harvard Law Review by James Bradley Thayer, Professor of Law at Harvard University. It elaborately discusses the doctrine of judicial restraint. Justices Holmes, Brandeis, and Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court were followers of Prof. Thayer’s philosophy of judicial restraint. Justice Frankfurter referred to Thayer as “the great master of Constitutional Law,” and in a lecture at the Harvard Law School said: “If I were to name one piece of writing on American Constitutional Law, I would pick Thayer’s once famous essay, because it is a great guide for judges, and therefore the great guide for understanding by non-judges of what the place of the judiciary is in relation to constitutional questions.”
The court certainly has power to decide constitutional issues. However, as pointed out by Justice Frankfurter in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette 319 U.S. 624 (1943), since this great power can prevent the full play of the democratic process, it is vital that it should be exercised with rigorous self restraint.
Separation of powers
The philosophy behind the doctrine of judicial restraint is that there is broad separation of powers under the Constitution, and the three organs of the State, the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, must respect each other, and must not ordinarily encroach into each other’s domain, otherwise the system cannot function properly. Also, the judiciary must realise that the legislature is a democratically elected body, which expresses the will of the people (however imperfectly) and in a democracy this will is not to be lightly frustrated or thwarted.
Apart from the above, as pointed out by Prof. Thayer, judicial over-activism deprives the people of “the political experience and the moral education and stimulus that comes from fighting the problems in the ordinary way, and correcting their own errors”.
In Asif Hameed vs. The State of J&K, AIR 1989 S.C. 1899 (paragraphs 17 to 19), the Indian Supreme Court observed: “Although the doctrine of separation of powers has not been recognised under the Constitution in its absolute rigidity, the Constitution makers have meticulously defined the functions of various organs of the State. The legislature, executive, and judiciary have to function within their own spheres demarcated in the Constitution. No organ can usurp the function of another. — While exercise of powers by the legislature and executive is subject to judicial restraint, the only check on our own exercise of power is the self imposed discipline of judicial restraint.”
Judicial restraint is particularly important for the Supreme Court for two reasons:
(1) Of the three organs of the state, only one, the judiciary, is empowered to declare the limits of jurisdiction of all three organs. This great power must therefore be exercised by the judiciary with the utmost humility and self restraint.
(2) The errors of the lower courts can be corrected by the higher courts, but there is none above the Supreme Court to correct its errors.
Some people justify judicial activism by saying that the legislature and executive are not properly performing their functions. The reply to this argument is that the same charge is often levelled against the judiciary. Should the legislature or the executive then take over judicial functions? If the legislature and the executive do not perform their functions properly, it is for the people to correct them by exercising their franchise properly, or by peaceful and lawful public meetings and demonstrations, and/or by public criticism through the media and by other lawful means. The remedy is not in the judiciary taking over these functions, because the judiciary has neither the expertise nor the resources to perform these functions.
In this connection I may quote from an article by Wallace Mendelson published in 31 Vanderbilt Law Review 71 (1978): “If, then, the Thayer tradition of judicial modesty is outmoded, if judicial aggression is to be the rule, as in the 1930s, some basic issues remain:
“First, how legitimate is government by Judges? Is anything beyond their reach? Will anything be left for ultimate resolution by the democratic process, for, what Thayer called ‘that wide margin of considerations which address themselves only to the practical judgment of a legislative body representing (as Courts do not) a wide range of mundane needs and aspirations?’
“Second, if the Supreme Court is to be the ultimate policy making body without accountability, how is it to avoid the corrupting effects of raw power? Also, can the Court satisfy the expectations it has aroused?
“Third, can nine men [the Supreme Court Judges] master the complexities of every phase of American life? Are any nine men wise enough and good enough to wield such power over the lives of millions? Are Courts institutionally equipped for such burdens? Unlike legislatures, they are not representative bodies reflecting a wide range of social interest. Lacking a professional staff of trained investigators, they must rely for data almost exclusively upon the partisan advocates who appear before them. Inadequate or misleading information invites unsound decisions.
“Finally, what kind of citizens will such a system of judicial activism produce, a system that trains us to look not to ourselves for the solution of our problems, but to the most elite among elites: nine Judges governing our lives without political or judicial accountability? Surely this is neither democracy nor the rule of law.”
In Marbury vs. Madison (1803), Chief Justice Marshal, while avoiding confrontation with the government of President Jefferson, upheld the supremacy of the Constitution. Another example is the very recent judgment of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts in the Affordable Healthcare Act case, in which he basically followed the doctrine of judicial restraint.
In Divisional Manager, Aravali Golf Course vs. Chander Haas (2006) the Indian Supreme Court observed: “Judges must know their limits and not try to run the government. They must have modesty and humility and not behave like Emperors. There is broad separation of powers under the Constitution, and each of the organs of the state must have respect for the others and must not encroach into each other’s domain.” A similar view was taken in Government of Andhra Pradesh vs. P. Laxmi Devi.
New Deal legislation
A reference may usefully be made to the well known episode in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court when it dealt with the New Deal legislation initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt soon after he assumed office in 1933. When the overactive court kept striking down this legislation, President Roosevelt proposed to pack the court with six of his nominees. The threat was enough, and it was not necessary to carry it out. In 1937, the court changed its confrontationist attitude and started upholding the legislation (see West Coast Hotel Vs. Parrish). “Economic due process” met with a sudden demise.
The moral of this story is that if the judiciary does not maintain restraint and crosses its limits there will be a reaction which may do great damage to the judiciary, its independence, and its respect in society.
It is not my opinion that a judge should never be activist, but such activism should be done only in exceptional and rare cases, and ordinarily judges should exercise self restraint.
In Dennis vs. U.S. (1950), Justice Frankfurter observed: “Courts are not representative bodies. They are not designed to be a good reflex of a democratic society. Their essential quality is detachment, founded on independence. History teaches that the independence of the judiciary is jeopardised when Courts become embroiled in the passions of the day, and assume primary responsibility in choosing between competing political, economic, and social pressures”.
The Pakistan Supreme Court would be well advised to heed these words of wisdom, even at such a late stage.
(Justice Markandey Katju is chairman of the Press Council of India.)