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4 April 2017 Editorial


4 APRIL 2017

Welcome assurance

On the executive sharing judiciary's burden

Help in tackling the backlog of cases could radically improve executive-judiciary relations

The importance of cooperation between the executive and the judiciary in dealing with the unacceptably high number of pending cases in the country cannot be overemphasised. For over a year, there were indications of an impasse over judicial appointments between the two branches of the state, mainly after the Supreme Court struck down legislation to establish a National Judicial Appointments Commission. That phase appears to be coming to an end. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's assurance to the Chief Justice of India, J.S. Khehar, that his government would contribute its share in reducing the judiciary's burden is a positive gesture that will be welcomed by the legal fraternity. Speaking at a function to mark the 150th anniversary of the Allahabad High Court, Mr. Modi gave the assurance after observing the pain behind the words of Justice Khehar over the increasing backlog of cases. Justice Khehar's "dil ki baat (talk from the heart)" on the problem underscored an institutional anguish that has gripped the judiciary over time. Successive Chief Justices have brought to the government's notice the state of affairs with regard to both the alarming docket situation and the chronic shortage of judicial hands in the superior and subordinate judiciary. The previous Chief Justice of India, T.S. Thakur, had highlighted the point in public functions as well as during judicial hearings, once even wondering if the government wanted to bring the judiciary to a grinding halt by its reluctance to fill up vacancies. If the Prime Minister's latest remarks represent a fresh resolve not to let such an impression gain ground, it will surely represent a new beginning in the executive-judiciary relationship.

Mr. Modi did not spell out whether his assurance to contribute to the process meant his government would expedite the process of appointing judges, but there is no doubt that this will be the most significant contribution as well as the government's responsibility. Official figures show there are as many as 437 vacancies in the High Courts alone as of March 1, 2017. It is incontestable that any effort to liquidate the arrears of cases would involve a significant increase in the speed at which judicial appointments are processed. Mr. Modi also spoke of the use of technology and digitalisation in the judicial system, a point that is of undoubted relevance when one considers the magnitude of the task of reducing the backlog. There is much that the use of technology can do in both liquidating arrears and expediting processes such as filing of documents and serving of notices. Meanwhile, reports suggest that the government and the Supreme Court Collegium may be close to agreeing on a new Memorandum of Procedure for judicial appointments. If differences that caused a prolonged stand-off are eliminated and a new procedure agreed upon, there cannot be better tidings for the institution.

Climbdown in Caracas

On Venezuela's top court reversing a legislature order

Venezuela's top court reverses a shocking order to take over the legislature's functions

The decision by Venezuela's highest court on Saturday to reverse its earlier move of nullifying the elected legislature, the Congress, brings some respite from the relentless attack on democratic institutions under President Nicolás Maduro. And the fact that last week the judges initiated the process to strip the legislature of all law-making powers, indicating contempt for the will of the people in pursuit of Mr. Maduro's interests, also puts in sharp focus the severe erosion of the judiciary's independence. The attempted takeover marked the nadir in the months-long confrontation between the legislature and the courts, which are packed with loyalists of Mr. Maduro. A notable voice of dissent that seems to have forced the Supreme Court to rescind the decision came from the attorney general, who characterised the initial move as a "rupture in the constitutional order". The information minister may have described the subsequent reversal on Saturday as the court's way of correcting a mistake, but the battle between the government and opposition is far from settled. The opposition had won a two-thirds majority in the national assembly in the 2015 elections. Such a large majority was always going to prove contentious, as it empowers Congress to amend the constitution and to appoint judges. Soon after its inauguration, the new legislature had challenged the economic emergency that Mr. Maduro enforced in January 2016, giving him overall control on expenditure.

Meanwhile, the severe shortages of rations of essential commodities have led to a grave humanitarian crisis. The social and political unrest that accompanied the plummeting value of the Bolivar, resulting from triple-digit inflation, was met with more repression and the arbitrary detention of leading opposition figures. The most notorious such incident was the torture and killing of innocent youth at the military's hands in the rural province of Barlovento last October, which drew strong condemnation even from government investigators. However, the opposition seems to have exhausted all manoeuvres to exploit political and constitutional avenues to challenge the government. Its effort to mobilise popular support for a recall referendum against the President, with a petition endorsed by millions, was rejected by the electoral commission in October. It is obvious that the crisis engulfing the country can hardly be addressed by an autocrat who refuses to be held to account. But the fact that the court was forced to reverse the decision to nullify the legislature is a signal of hope that there are some limits to the Maduro regime's flagrant excesses. International pressure is another check on the regime. Recently, Venezuela was declared ineligible to exercise its vote in the UN General Assembly for failing to pay dues to the tune of millions of dollars. This kind of embarrassment is something that Mr. Maduro can do without at this juncture.

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