Tension with CJP comes to a boil as govt fires SC registrar

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ISLAMABAD: In an astonishing development, the federal cabinet on Monday threw its weight behind the senior Supreme Court judge, Justice Qazi Faez Isa, instead of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial, as it ordered removal of the top court’s registrar as sought by Justice Isa after the registrar “disregarded” one of his orders at the behest of the top judge the other day.

The Establishment Division issued a notification after approval from the cabinet to remove SC registrar Ishrat Ali from his post.

He was directed to report to the Establishment Division.

The face-off between the federal government and CJP Bandial escalated soon after the top judge of the country continued hearing PTI’s plea against the delay in holding elections in Punjab within the constitutional limit of 90 days despite the ruling coalition’s reservations that later on pushed them to explicitly express no confidence in the CJP and two judges hearing the case with him.

Taking an advantage of the apparent schism between the CJP and some judges of the apex court, the federal cabinet hurriedly gathered at the Prime Minister House on Monday evening in a special meeting convened to discuss the two-point agenda – one being the removal of the SC registrar as desired by Justice Isa.

The special cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, considered the issue of registrar issuing a circular against the order of Justice Isa.

Following the discussion, the cabinet decided to withdraw the services of SC registrar and directed him to report to the Establishment Division – an apparent attempt to embarrass CJP and convey the message that things have reached a point of no return.

The federal cabinet’s decision to remove SC registrar has come hours before a three-member bench of the apex court comprising CJP Bandial, Justice Ijazul Ahsan and Justice Munib Akhtar is all set to announce judgment in Punjab polls’ delay case.

The court reserved the judgment on Monday and announced that it would announce it on April 4, Tuesday (today).

The drama began unfolding when the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had delayed elections in Punjab till October 8 citing lack of funds and concern about security after initially announcing April 30 as the poll date for the province.

The government has been insisting on holding elections after the completion of its constitutional term in August this year. It has expressed its strong desire that the three-member bench, which has reduced in size from nine members to the current composition, should abstain from hearing the matter. Instead, the government has urged the formation of a full court to deliberate and decide on the legal and constitutional issues at stake in this matter.

However, the CJP while urging the political parties to lower the “toxic” rhetoric has been pushing the ECP to hold polls within the stipulated period of 90 days or a date closer to that – a direction which resonates with PTI’s demand to hold polls in 90 days after the assembly’s dissolution.

It seems that the registrar is caught in the middle of a power struggle between influential parties. Justice Isa recently asked that the Establishment Division relinquish Ali from his duties for disregarding a judicial order related to suo motu proceedings. In response, the federal cabinet quickly took action.

On March 31, the Supreme Court disregarded a judgment authored by Justice Isa, which had ordered the postponement of suo motu cases until amendments were made to the SC Rules 1980. These amendments would address the discretionary powers of the chief justice to form benches.

In its circular issued by the SC registrar, CJP Bandial noted that the observations made by the majority judgment in paras 11 to 22 and 26 to 28 were beyond the matter fixed before the court and “invokes its suo motu jurisdiction”.

The SC registrar said that the order violated the rules laid down by a five-member judgment.

In response to the registrar’s circular, Justice Isa asked the Establishment Division to “recall its officer, Mr Ishrat Ali, to prevent him from further damaging the reputation and integrity of the Supreme Court”.

“And, if you consider appropriate to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him in accordance with the applicable laws as he has apparently violated the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the order of the Supreme Court dated 29 March 2023, passed in Suo Motu Case No. 4 of 2022,” the note issued by Justice Isa read.

Meanwhile, the cabinet also demanded of President Dr Arif Alvi to sign The Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill, 2023, immediately so that the country could get rid of the constitutional and political crisis.

Recently, the federal government had passed the bill from the National Assembly and the Senate, clipping CJP Bandial’s powers to initiate suo motu proceedings and to constitute benches on his own, proposing that a three-member committee should decide such matters.

The president, who belongs to PTI, however, has yet to sign the bill, preventing it from becoming a law for the time being.

Law Minister Senator Azam Nazeer Tarar and Attorney General for Pakistan briefed the federal cabinet on various issues and about the proceedings that took place before the Supreme Court before it reserved the decision.

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