The Supreme Court reserved its verdict in the Panamagate case on 23rd February – about the month ago. Not surprisingly there is a lot of speculation regarding both the ultimate decision and its timing. Much of this speculation is however either based on self-satisfying guesswork or hearsay, or both.
Admittedly, all forms of speculation are based on some form of guesswork. After all only the relevant decision makers – in this case the five Supreme Court judges who heard the matter – really know what the outcome will be and what will motivate that decision.
Lord Blackburn, one of the most distinguished jurists of his time, eloquently expressed this limitation of human knowledge in one of his judgments by saying that “the thought of man is not triable, for even the devil does not know what the thought of man is”.
Lord Blackburn’s observation notwithstanding one can nevertheless attempt to ground speculation in reason (and perhaps also a bit of humility).
To predict the actions of any rational actor, such as judges, one needs to first appreciate the varying choices that he or she has to choose between. The basket of choices available to the judges deciding the Panamagate case becomes clear when we consider the original prayer – or list of requests – submitted in PTI’s petition before the Supreme Court.
PTI made five key demands: (i) direct disqualification of PM Sharif, his son-in-law (Capt. Safdar) and the incumbent finance minister, Mr. Ishaq Dar; (ii) recovery of stolen money and properties; (iii) a direction to NAB to discharge its duties properly and complete ongoing investigations in mega corruption cases; (iv) a direction to FBR to specifically scrutinize the tax returns and asset declarations of the Sharif family; and (v) that the names of the PM and his family members named in Panama leaks be placed on the ECL. More generally, PTI has also requested the Court to grant “any other relief deemed just and proper”.
Given this basket, the Court can either: reject all demands, accepts all demands, reject some demands and accept others, and/or (and less likely) craft a different relief than what requested “in the interests of justice”. A rejection or acceptance of all of PTI’s demands is an unlikely outcome both from a legal and political perspective.
For instance take PTI’s prayer regarding the PM’s disqualification. Optimists among PTI seem to think that this is likely and often cite PM Gilani’s fate to support their view. If there is no grand judicial conspiracy that is hell bent on keeping Punjab in power, they argue, this is the only real option before the Supreme Court.
What these optimists however fail to appreciate is that PM Gilani’s disqualification followed a three year battle between the Court and the then President Zardari which ultimately culminated in a contempt of court conviction against the Premier. Even after the conviction, Gilani was not disqualified. The Supreme Court had to wait till the Speaker decided against submitting the PM’s disqualification reference to the Election Commission. This refusal was challenged before the Court, which in turn de-seated the PM.
The powerful and activist Chaudhry Court in 2012 appeared to have respected and to an extent followed the disqualification procedure set out in Article 63 of the Constitution. And it is hard to imagine why a similar procedure would not be followed today.
From a plain textual reading of the Constitution, the Supreme Court cannot directly disqualify a Member of Parliament. It must ordinarily wait for the Speaker’s or Election Commission’s decision on this issue.
Politically, the Supreme Court will also resist direct disqualification since it involves direct confrontation with the ruling party and further embroilment of the Court in politically charged issues. A conservative judge might well opine that decisions relating to the disqualification of our representatives in Parliament are best left in the political arena. With elections a little than a year away, key establishment and economic interests may also support this position, as it offers stability and a smooth transition of government.
But where disqualification seems unlikely, the achievement of other demands in PTI’s petition is not so improbable. One can well imagine that the Supreme Court will severely criticise NAB and the FBR in its order – and rightly so.
Despite various indications from the Court, both NAB and the FBR failed to properly investigate Panama leaks. The Supreme Court has also previously rebuked NAB and there are several ongoing suo motu cases involving the Authority. In a case from 2015, for instance, NAB was specifically directed to bring to a close 179 mega corruption cases, the oldest of which is against the PM. NAB however has been dragging its feet and one can expect that it (along with the FBR) would be the Court’s leading punching bag.
This leaves the matter of investigation. Since the recovery of “stolen” money and properties (and any criminal conviction for that matter) is not really possible without a concrete investigation and trial, the Court will still be left with the question as to what the proper forum for these matters is.
Given PTI’s own prayer, it is likely that the matter is left with the NAB and/or the FBR (possibly with some judicial oversight or the identification of a focal person for investigation such as the Tax Ombudsman).
If the PTI is lucky, the Court may record the glaring inconsistencies (an “adverse finding”) in the PM’s account regarding the ownership of the Mayfair flats and the money trail that led to their purchase. If the PTI is very lucky, and the Court is particularly adventurous, an order of this kind may call upon the PM to step down (in propriety) at least while an investigation is underway. The latter however remains unlikely.
I recently asked a class of university students to predict the outcome of the Panamagate case. To my surprise, an overwhelming majority reported that the Court will end up forming a judicial commission, even if their own reading of the law and morality commanded otherwise.
Back in December, perhaps, this option seemed realistic. It would have certainly kept the SC out of the controversy, bought time for the PM and saved face for the PTI. But this option was turned down. The Supreme Court has now heard this case for over six months, the last three of which also featured day to day hearings. If now the Court turns to a judicial commission, it would create serious questions for its own legitimacy. But who really can say what will happen, “for even the devil does not know what the thought of man is”.