In high stakes cases, the Supreme Court must ensure that judgments are timely and clear
On October 26, 2018, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice of India, was confronted with a straightforward legal question: whether the decision taken by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Central government to divest Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Director Alok Verma of his powers and functions was legally valid. The question was a straightforward one, because it required the court to interpret three legal instruments: the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act (that brought the CBI into existence), the CVC Act, and the Supreme Court’s own prior judgment in Vineet Narain .The counsel for Mr. Verma argued that the DSPE Act made it clear that the CBI Director had a guaranteed, two-year tenure, and could not be transferred without the consent of a high-powered committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Chief Justice of India. This interpretation of the Act was buttressed by the Supreme Court’s exhortation, in Vineet Narain , that the Director must be protected from political influence.
The Attorney-General, on the other hand, argued that the committee’s role was purely recommendatory, that the power vested with the Central government, and that in any event Mr. Verma had not been “transferred”. As the Supreme Court itself acknowledged, what was at stake was a “pure question of law”.
Yet this pure question of law took six hearings and more than two-and-a-half months to resolve, and yielded an unclear decision where the court agreed with the principal legal contentions of Mr. Verma, but passed a judgment whose ambit left everyone scratching their heads. During the Constituent Assembly debates, there was a proposal that all cases involving fundamental rights be decided within a month. The fear was that the more time the court took, the more the government would benefit from the status quo.
Recent events have confirmed this fear. In high stakes cases, time-sensitive cases, the court must ensure two things: that the judgment is timely, and that the judgment is clear. The Alok Verma case demonstrates how, when the court fails to do so, it abdicates its role as the sentinel on the qui vive , and allows the government to get away with abuse of law.