No, on average they act independently of politicians


It is certainly true that the justices on the Supreme Court, whether it be in India or the United States, feel the pressure of public opinion and the desires of the executive branch. But I believe the judges, on average, rise above petty considerations of political expediency and uphold the dignity of their office.

This issue is relevant in the United States now that George W. Bush has been able to bring in two new justices: especially with lifetime appointments, it is feared that conservatives will now overturn the liberal precedents of Brown v. Board of Education (ruling against racial discrimination) and Roe v. Wade (allowing women the right to abortion).

It is certainly possible that stacking the court with conservatives will have consequences, but historically, justices, once in the high court, have moderated their views and become more middle-of-the-road. This has happened in the case of numerous justices in the United States.

The situation in India is more problematic. Some justices, both in the apex court and in state High Courts, have appeared to act in bad faith to be in the good books of the powers-that-be. Nevertheless, on average the Supreme Court has indeed come up with sensible rulings, for instance in the ongoing struggle with a particularly muscular central minister intent on large-scale pandering to certain vested interests.

It is true that there are some apex-court justices who appear to toe a certain line. This, I suppose, simply means that they have a particular political perspective, which of course they are allowed to have, and so long as it doesn’t get in the way of their making sensible decisions, this is not an issue.

There is a fear that the courts in India—like any other institution—have been corrupted by both the carrot of money and the stick of threatened consequences. Especially in the lower courts, there are instances where justice has not exactly been served when politicians forced judges and magistrates to take decisions under duress.

Furthermore, certain glitterati have enjoyed excessive privilege, obvious contempt of court has gone unpunished, and courts have bent over backwards to accommodate certain individuals and their agendas. What this means is that judges are also human, who might now and then allow their personal prejudices to cloud their, er … judgment.

However, this is fortunately the exception rather than the rule. On the contrary, the court has annoyed the central government, most recently in the ruling that the dissolution of the Bihar Assembly was unconstitutional. Similarly, the ongoing tussle between the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the apex court about the limits to parliamentary privilege shows that the judges are clear about the checks and balances they provide to the executive.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this commentary from Palo Alto, Calif.


Yes, when justices are selected based on ideology


No matter how vigorously it is denied, the two newest justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were selected precisely to promote the ideological agenda of the president and the radical right wing of the Republican Party. The latter has made no secret of the time, energy, and dollars that have been invested in achieving this objective—the defeat of Robert Bork still stings after all these years.

Presidents generally seek judicial nominees who have a better than good chance of being confirmed by the Senate, are often trusted friends, and most significantly, share their ideological views. So, with regard to this president’s picks, why not just call a spade a spade? The president has fulfilled his campaign promise to put on the bench jurists who follow a particular judicial philosophy, a euphemism for “conservative ideology.”

While it is true that some justices nominated by Republican presidents in the past turned out to be more centrist, no doubt disappointing conservatives, the reality may be that a judge such as Sandra O’Connor was not all that right of center to start with. Not leaving anything to chance, the current administration rarely, if ever, consulted with the opposition when vetting Supreme Court nominees (it was not interested in a consensus nominee) seeking only those candidates who passed some pre-Senate hearing conservative litmus test. Why else did Alberto Gonzales, initially rumored to be at the top of the president’s list, and Harriet Miers, the presidential pick, fail to make the grade? Perhaps, one wasn’t vocal enough about opposition to Roe v. Wade and the other was an unknown, even if she was the “best” person the president could find. Conservatives, it seems, couldn’t take a chance on an unknown.

There is no reason to believe Roberts and Alito will follow in the path of earlier centrists now that they have been sworn in as justices. One has only to look at Justices Scalia and Thomas to see that the bench casts no moderating spell.

Perhaps it is presidential prerogative to constitute a Supreme Court, if given the chance, that promotes his (or her, one day) political and ideological agendas. The founding fathers, though, were clear when they designated the courts to be independent—independent of ideology, political pressures; accountable only to the constitution, and, hopefully, to us, the people.

Ironically, the life terms granted to justices by the constitution are meant to preserve the court’s independence as presidents come and go. Nothing, however, leaves a more permanent stamp of a presidency than the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. Nothing impacts the lives of citizens more either.

Reeta Sinha wrote this opinion from Las Vegas, Nev.