Madam Chief Justice

Unlike the President and the Speaker of Parliament, Chief Justice Sushila Karki is not a political appointee

binita

Binita Dahal

After the promulgation of the new Constitution in the Nepali year 2072 that just ended, the country made history with the first female President, first Speaker of Parliament. On Wednesday, the first day of 2073, we also got the first female Chief Justice.

However, President Bidya Bhandari’s selection was based on her proximity to the ruling UML party, and her being the widow of the late Madan Bhandari. The choice of Onsari Gharti Magar as Speaker had a lot to do with her being a former guerrilla married to former CPN(M) Secretary, Barshaman Pun.

In contrast, Chief Justice Sushila Karki was recommended by the Constitutional Council this week purely on merit and on the basis of seniority – it had nothing to do with political or personal favours. This is a recognition of her own struggle to overcome obstacles in a profession dominated by men. She served as a Supreme Court justice for the past eight years where she made some bold and independent decisions, even though the verdicts sometimes went against some political figures she was close to.

It is another irony that Karki’s recommendation has yet to be ratified by parliament because of the lack of consensus among political parties for a house hearing. Which is why she still has the prefix ‘acting’ in front of her Chief Justice title. This is the first time in history that a Chief Justice is acting, and is a damning indictment of the political paralysis in government to formally approve the country’s first female Chief Justice.

Karki is known for her diligence, integrity, a frugal lifestyle and a proven track record of zero tolerance for corruption. She lives in a rented room in her sister’s congested house in Dhapasi. She was born in Biratnagar, and her family was close to the Koirala clan. She used to be a member of the student union affiliated to the Nepali Congress during the Panchayat years.  Her husband also used to be active in the NC during the 1970s when the party was underground and was involved in the daring hijacking of a Royal Nepal Airlines flight in 1972.

Despite her party affiliation, Karki was known to be fair and independent in her judgements. She came into the limelight for the first time after her verdict against Minister Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta who served a jail sentence on corruption charges. She also revived the cases against Khum Bahadur Khadka and Govinda Raj Joshi, both of the NC.

Some have questioned Karki’s grasp of constitutional issues. Her predecessor, Kalyan Shrestha, who stepped down this week was embroiled in controversy over his decision as head of the Judicial Council to nominate 11 justices to Supreme Court. Karki was a member of the Council that took that decision.

Due to the provision of a high court in the new constitution the Appellate Court will soon be dissolved. The laws related to the high court are yet to be formed, and may take a few more months. As Chief Justice, Karki will have to twist some tails and she is going to face the pressure from inside the court and political parties. People close to her say that she will never base her decisions on pressure, but rely on her legal instincts and the strict merit of the case.

Former Chief Justice Ram Prasad Shrestha who recommended Karki as justice, said he chose her not because she is a woman but because of her capability. Which is why she got handed the most sensitive political corruption cases. She even recommended the Judicial Council to investigate disputed judges of the Special Court who gave a clean chit in some high profile corruption cases like the one involving  Cholendra Shamsher, now a justice of the Supreme Court and next in the line for the post of Chief Justice.

This will also be another challenge for Karki, who will share the bench with Shamsher. Her other challenge will be to expedite some of the 23,000 pending cases in the Supreme Court. While we celebrate the appointment of Nepal’s first woman Chief Justice, we must admit she has her work cut out for her during her 14 month tenure.

@binitadahal

This article was originally published in Nepali Times (http://nepalitimes.com/regular-columns/Legalese/Madam-chief-justice,696)

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