The ongoing Panama Leaks issue, which has plagued our polity over the past many months, has finally graduated to its drop-scene. After months of political haggling, TOR negotiations, parliamentary proposals, and public demonstrations (culminating in the Islamabad lock-down rally), the Panama Leaks issue has finally been deposited at the doorstep of the honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan. And the entire nation waits, with abated breath, as the apex Court parses through the multiplicity of legal (and political) issues involved in the case.

The one question that everyone is asking, and no one has an answer to, is: what will happen next?

Predicting political future, with any measure of certainty, might be an impossible feat. However, what does warrant purposeful analysis is the precise nature of questions being deliberated before the honorable Court, and possible courses of action available.

To begin with, it important to keep in mind that the incumbent Supreme Court is different in character and philosophy, compared to the court of yesteryears. Unlike the infamous Chaudhary Court, this Supreme Court is far less eager to involve itself in political questions. This is a mature court; one that has, commendably, resisted the lure of media frenzy and political center-stage, restricting itself to deciding legal issues, in accordance with the strict parameters of law.

In fidelity to this measured judicial philosophy, the honorable Chief Justice of Pakistan has, in the past, abstained from delving into the Panama Leaks issue. Some months back, when the Prime Minister invited the honorable Chief Justice to form a commission for investigation of the Panama Leaks issue, the honorable Chief Justice refused to form “a toothless Commission” to investigate the government’s proposed terms of reference, which were so “wide and open ended that, prima facie, it may take years for the Commission to conclude its proceedings”. The honorable Chief Justice, through a letter from the Registrar, informed the Federal Government that such a commission would serve “no useful purpose, except giving bad name to it.”

Subsequently, even when PTI approached the honorable Court to investigate the Panama Leaks, Registrar of the honorable Court returned the Petition (perhaps incorrectly), claiming that it could not be entertained under Article 184 of the Constitution. This, again, reflected a deliberate effort, on part of the honorable Supreme Court, not to get dragged onto the political stage.

However, over the past few weeks, the entire nation has been brought to the edge of political anarchy, necessitating some interference to restore order. And finally, as a last resort, the honorable Court has stepped in with a purposeful narrative that reflects an appreciation of its own judicial limitations and reach. Specifically, in this regard, the honorable Supreme Court has resolved to form its own TORs, which will be actionable within the confines of law, and will produce a judicial verdict, as opposed to a political one.

While the honorable Court, admirably, seems only to be interested in deciding the legal issues involved, it must also be aware that the political fall-out cannot be ignored. In fact, to this end, the honorable Court must be mindful of another narrative to this developing tale: that of the Court’s own credibility. In this regard, the honorable Court must appreciate the growing narrative that ‘Commissions’ of the past – be it the Saleem Shehzad Commission, the Model Town Commission, the Arsalan Iftikhar Commission, the Memogate Commission – have not produced meaningful results. And that there is a general sense amongst the people that ‘Commissions’ are the Black-Hole of politico-judicial culture. Nothing ever comes out of it.

Separately, the honorable Court must also be aware of two other brewing realities: 1) A large fraction of the population, including individuals who overtly support PML(N), believe that the Prime Minister has not been above board in regards to the issues underlying Panama Leaks, and his family’s off-shore holdings; and 2) An even larger percentage of the people, who observed the Court during Iftikhar Chaudhary years, believe that our Courts (almost) never passes a verdict against the PML(N) government.

And so, in many ways, the ongoing proceedings of the honorable Supreme Court are not only about arriving at a technically legal verdict for Panama Leaks; they are, in equal measure, about deciding four important politico-legal questions: 1) Can the court arrive at a legal verdict that also brings about a political consensus? 2) Are judicial commissions toothless instruments designed to protect the status quo? 3) Will the technicalities of judicial process save the Prime Minister and his financial assets, even when the entire nation has heard conflicting statements form his family members; and 4) Can this court muster the judicial mettle to convict the PML(N) leadership, in accordance with law, or will it allow the Prime Minister and his family to go scot-free, paving the way for a 2018 electoral victory?

In order to decide some of these issues, the honorable Court will need to be mindful of the ticking clock, as well as the limitations of its own judicial reach.

For this purpose, it might be best if the honorable Court bifurcates the multifaceted issues of Panama Leaks, into two distinct buckets. First, a list of issues that requires evidence to be produced, and a trial to be conducted, in accordance with Article 10-A of the Constitution. These would includes questions such as how the Prime Minister and his family earned the financial resources through which the properties in London were purchased? Were the requisite taxes and regulatory dues paid? Was the money sent abroad through lawful means? Was a loss caused to the National Exchequer? And were these financial resources declared, in accordance with law? These questions will, in all likelihood, require production of extensive documentation, testimony, and even forensic audit, before a judicial verdict can be reached. And the honorable Court, under Article 184, is not a trial court, and thus may not be able to carry out this exercise by itself.

Second, a different set of issues, which require only a prima facie appreciation of evidence, for which no trial is necessary, and can thus be decided within the parameters of Article 184. The most important of these questions is whether the Prime Minister lied on his asset declaration forms, submitted at the time of electoral nominations, and is thus disqualified under Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution? To adjudicate this question, a full trial may not be necessary. The Prime Minister and his family members have already admitted to owning companies in Panama, and resultantly to the ownership of properties in London. It is also a matter of admitted record that Mrs. Maryam Nawaz is a declared dependent of the Prime Minister, even while she owned properties in London. As such, in the circumstances, after reviewing the tax records and electoral filings, the honorable Court needs to arrive at a judicial verdict as to whether the Prime Minister has violated Article 62 and 63, including the requirement of ‘Sadiq and Ameen’, and is liable to be disqualified. In all likelihood, no special commission or trial, entailing detailed production of evidence, may be necessary to answer this question.

These are tough times in our national, political and judicial history. The honourable Supreme Court, once again, stands in the gaze of history. The Panama Leaks case, now that it is before the honourable Supreme Court, is a minefield of challenges and opportunities. This case, for all intents and purposes, will decide the new image of the post-Iftikhar Chaudhary court. Will the Court be a mature institution that provides tempered legal answers to contested political questions? Or will it be an institution that protects the status quo?

This is a mature court; one that has, commendably, resisted the lure of media frenzy and political center-stage, restricting itself to deciding legal issues, in accordance with the strict parameters of law.