[This post follows up on my previous post on this judgment on this blog.]
In Koushal v Naz—the case being touted as one of its worst judgments—a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court recently overturned a 2009 decision of Delhi High Court which had struck down the criminalisation of sodomy by s 377 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 as unconstitutional. In doing so, it has recriminalized every Indian who has ever had oral or anal sex (irrespective of
the gender of the person they had it with, and irrespective of consent).
Many commentators have already pointed out the spectacular lack of constitutional and judicial aptitude, understanding of human rights and compassion in the judgment. In this comment, I will focus on the deeper structural and institutional decline of which this judgment is a painful
symptom. If Koushal were read simply as the failure of a couple of judges to get the law right, India would miss a rare opportunity to treat the root causes of the malaise.
Koushal represents two structural failures of the Supreme Court, at least one of which has sometimes been commended as a great success by some commentators.
The first structural failure, one that many progressives see as a model for how the judiciary should be organised, is the near-total abandonment by the Supreme Court of the principle of separation of powers, and its transformation into a populist, legislative court of governance.
The second failure, one that flows from the first failure, is the Court’s routine dereliction of its duty to give reasons for its decisions and the legal academy’s failure to hold it accountable for this dereliction. Let me explain both of these failures in turn, and how they have facilitated the decision in Koushal.
Failure I: Judiciary as a Counter-majoritarian Institution
In Koushal, the Court could barely conceal its disdain when it described lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people as ‘a miniscule fraction of the country’s population’ [43] with ‘so-called rights’ [52]. This may seem bizarre to those of us who believe that one of the primary functions of unelected constitutional courts is the protection of vulnerable minorities from majoritarian excesses. Clearly, a ‘miniscule’ minority should be of particular concern to a counter-majoritarian
The Court’s position is easier to fathom if understood in the context of its history following the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. During the Emergency, the Court agreed to the suspension of Habeas Corpus, a fundamental right against arbitrary detention of citizens by the state. After the Emergency, the Court started to reinvent itself to gain institutional legitimacy. This reinvention was, however, not in terms of pitting itself against the representative organs of
the state, but by competing with these organs. The process, which began in the ‘80s, only intensified in the ‘90s which saw an end to one-party-dominance in politics. Coalition politics and weak
legislatures remain a feature of our politics to this day. The Court, in the meantime, became a populist institution of governance—stepping in to fill the void left by an increasingly dysfunctional Parliament. In a country where the majority of the population suffers significant disadvantage, majoritarianism can often become aligned with ‘progressive’ politics. A majoritarian Court continued to play to the gallery and wrecked havoc on the principle of separation of powers.
As it laid down detailed guidelines, took up cases without any litigant, appointed commissioners, created policy, and micro-managed implementation, it was cheered on by civil society, while meek politicians barely managed occasional squeals of disapproval. Its occasional retrogressive missteps were brushed aside as aberrations, and the Supreme Court, regularly invoking its popular Public Interest Litigation jurisdiction, came to be seen as a model of progressive judiciary by many people in India, and outside India.
It should not surprise us that this majoritarian populist institution found it impossible to respect the ‘so-called’ rights of a ‘miniscule’ minority. Of course, our courts have sometimes stood up for minority rights. So has Parliament. What matters here is the self-image the Court has been allowed to cultivate, which overwhelmingly determines its institutional course of action. This self-image is not that of a counter-majoritarian institution correcting the excesses of democracy, but one that is acutely conscious of the reception of its judgments by the people (such consciousness
extends only to the outcome of a case, not its reasoning). Under this model, if representative bodies did a good job of representing the people, the courts would be unnecessary. The Court is a political actor, which wants to be judged as politicians are judged. Its legitimacy rests on popular acceptance, not constitutional mandate.
This political context explains, rather than complicates, how the bench in Koushal suddenly discovers the joys of separation of powers. The Court first extends the presumption of constitutionality to a pre-constitutional colonial law by suggesting that the democratic Parliament has ‘adopted’ it by failing to amend it [28, 32]. It specifically mentions a 2013 legislation amending the law dealing with sexual assault as proof that ‘the legislature has chosen not to amend the law or revisit it’, ignoring completely the fact that there was no need for Parliament to do so after the Delhi High Court had read down s 377 to exclude private sex between consenting adults from its ambit. That the 2013 legislation was enacted after the hearing in Koushal was concluded, thereby affording no opportunity to the parties to challenge its use by the Court, is another matter.
This ostensible deference to democratic will is an opportunistic fig leaf of a populist Court with little more than contempt for the representative institutions of democracy. In an act of concluding
magnanimity to the legislature, the final sentence of the judgment grants it permission to consider the ‘desirability and propriety of deleting section 377’ [56]. The fact that it thought such a clarification was necessary tells us that this is not a Court deferential to the legislature—this is a Court with unhesitant pretensions of being the legislature.
Failure II: The Duty to give Reasons
A key feature of adjudication is the public articulation of reasons after hearing principled submissions by the parties involved, on the basis of which a judge arrives at her decisions. In this respect, adjudication differs from voting, which allows a decision-maker to decide without having to articulate her reasons (or even without having any reasons). The Supreme Court in Koushal fails to respect this fundamental judicial duty at so many levels that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Court seems to be voting, not adjudicating. The following factual inaccuracies, unsupported conclusions, and omissions in the judgment are particularly noteworthy in this regard:
  1. The Court records the Government of India’s position on the case as one defending the criminal provision under review [7]. This, despite the fact that the Government had chosen not to appeal the High Court ruling, and its top lawyer—the Attorney General of India—had clearly told the bench that the Government supported the High Court’s decriminalisation of
    adult consensual sex. Remarkably, the Court describes the Attorney General as ‘amicus’ [21]. This suggestion in the judgment that the Attorney General was simply a friend of the Court appearing in his personal capacity forced him to publicly clarify that he had very much represented the Government’s official position in the case.
  2. The Court found itself able to ignore the voluminous material placed before it to conclude that there was no evidence to show that ‘homosexuals, gays, etc., are being subjected to discriminatory treatment either by State or its agencies or the society’ [40].
  3. Long-standing precedent is clear that Article 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution requires every legal classification to be based on an intelligible differentia and have a rational nexus with a legitimate state objective. The Court, while repulsing the Article 14 challenge, finds it sufficient to say that the classification between ‘[t]hose who indulge in carnal intercourse in the ordinary course and those who indulge in carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ is intelligible [42]. It wastes no ink trying to identify the state objective being pursued, or asking whether the measure has any nexus with that objective.
  4. Even this half-hearted attempt to give reasons is not made when rejecting the Article 15 (right against discrimination) challenge. No reasons whatsoever are provided [44].
  5. The way the Court deals with the challenge under Article 21 (the right to life and liberty) is even more curious. After devoting several paragraphs quoting established precedents on Article 21 [45-50], the Court makes no specific finding with respect to Article 21! After these block quotations, the Court moves seamlessly to simply assert that the use of s 377 to ‘perpetrate harassment, blackmail and torture’ is ‘neither mandated by the section nor condoned by it’ [51]. How the preceding six paragraphs setting out the established doctrine under Article 21 help the Court reach this conclusion, and how this conclusion repels the Article 21 challenge, is anybody’s guess.
The judgment seems to have been written carelessly, perhaps even in a hurry—the hearing in the case concluded in March 2012, and the judgment was delivered in December 2013, on the day before the senior judge on the bench was due to retire. A cavalier attitude to its duty to give reasoned judgments is not uncommon in the Court’s jurisprudence. Although unfortunate, this is hardly surprising. The Court has a total strength of 30 judges, who usually sit in benches of 2. In 2011 alone, they decided some 47,000 admission matters (the Court sets aside two days every
week to hear admission applications!), of which 9,070 were admitted for regular hearing. The main reason for this staggering docket, apart from the size of the country, is its remarkably liberal invocation of its ‘special leave’ jurisdiction, which allows review petitions from any court or tribunal in the country to be placed directly before the Supreme Court (Article 136, Constitution). A direct approach to the top Court deprives it of the benefit of the considered views of the courts below, and should be allowed very rarely. The pressure of its workload also results in the constitutional requirement that any constitutional case involving a substantial question of law must be heard by at least five judges (Article 145) being routinely ignored (including in Koushal). Only 0.12% of all cases disposed of by the Court between 2005 and 2009 were decided by a bench of five judges or more.
Given such volume, what is surprising is the respectable number of cases where our judges do manage to give reasoned judgments. The fragmentation of the Court into small benches deciding thousands of cases every year had led to a situation where even a conscientious judge would find it next to impossible to respect stare decisis, the duty of the Court to apply previous decisions (i.e. precedents). For less conscientious judges, the opportunity to cherry-pick precedents is limitless.
Furthermore, the academy simply cannot keep up with the judicial assembly line. Academic criticism is the real check on judicial power in a democracy. In the Indian context, academics are forced to focus on the outcome of the cases alone—only a handful of cases (like Koushal) that really stand out receive proper academic attention. This reinforces the judicial belief that all they
need to do is to make the outcome generally palatable; all else will probably be ignored. Thus, the judges decide as if they were politicians, and they are judged as if they were politicians—based not on how they reason but on the way they vote.
The outrage that this judgment has inspired amongst politicians, activists and academics presents an opportunity to rethink the fundamental structural weaknesses of the Indian Supreme Court. Most of the recent debate on the reform of the Court has focused on changing the appointment system of judges (currently, the Court appoints its own judges) and dealing with the lack of diversity in the judiciary. While who gets to be a judge is an important issue, unless these structural infirmities are addressed, even Herculean judges cannot change the situation very much. The Court needs to reaffirm its central counter-majoritarian purpose in a liberal democracy. It must do less and do it well. It must stop voting and stick to adjudicating.
[A modified version of this post was published on the UK Constitutional Law Blog].
Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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  • Tarunabh,
    I, not that surprisingly, agree with much of what you say here and appreciate the forcefulness with which you make the argument. It seems that what were rumblings amongst academics, commentators, and lawyers about the clearly less than desirable functioning of the Court before Koushal has become a torrent of criticism afterwards. It's a case where it's easy to identify a number of aspects about what's so troubling about the Court's current process for making decisions. While I think there needs to be introspection by the Court, academics also need to help by pressing not only for the Court to give more reasoned judgments, but also to give a realistic plan about how it can get from where it is currently to that ideal. Some issues will take longer to address than others. For example, judges themselves will admit that it's difficult to recruit talented lawyers to become judges. Even if this could be solved today it would take a while for the fruits of this to trickle up to the Supreme Court.

    One idea that I do think would put pressure on the whole system is to constitute a large consitution bench that would decide when five judge or larger benches are needed to hear matters. As you know I harp on this a lot, but the Constitution says five judge benches are required for all "substantial questions" of constitutional law. If the Court was to reaffirm this, as I think they should (as well as define it better), then there would likely be closer to 100 five judge bench judgments a year as opposed to 10. I do think if Koushal was heard by five (or more) judges that many of the gaps in reasoning found in this judgment would have been filled in or at least there would have been a dissent. Now I've read enough constitution bench judgements over the years to know that this step alone would not be enough to solve all the current weaknesses in the Court's judgments (indeed, in some larger bench judgments there are so many concurrences, and they are often not clearly written, that one has difficulty determining the holding). Still, I think this step would help and if combined with a re-commitment by the Court to a culture in which they approach these cases with particular care could go a long way in not only helping tackle some of the lazy (or missing) reasoning in some judgments, but also to help tackle some of the stare decisis problems the Court is facing.

    Having more constitution benches would mean that the Court would then need more judges or to hear fewer cases. I would error towards the latter. That means though shoring up one's confidence in the High Courts. This would take time, but shutting off some of the safety valve of the Supreme Court (and it's always been unclear how much of a safety valve it's been anyway) would put additional pressure on speeding up this effort.

    Now if you look around the world you will find Supreme Courts that don't hear nearly as many cases as the Indian Supreme Court, have judges that always sit on large panels, and still relatively routinely give poor quality judgments. Although I think structure matters, I don't think it's everything. In this case though it would be a place to start and one the Court could use as an organizing force for reform.

  • Tarunabh,
    The words used in Article 145 are not as you state "any constitutional case involving a substantial question of law" nor is it, as Nick puts it, "substantial questions of constitutional law". The words used in Article 145(3) are – "substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution". A challenge to the vires of a section, such as in Koushal, may satisfy the former two but may not satisfy the latter.

  • Fair point, although I think Koushal also satisfies 'substantial question of law as to the interpretation of this Constitution' — although given that this provision has usually been ignored, I suspect we don't have much jurisprudence on the interpretation of 'substantial' (does it mean important, novel, with greatest impact etc?). I think there is a similar provision in the CPC though, which may provide some guidance. But I agree with your comment generally.

  • I was just paraphrasing. I actually don't know on its face how one should interpret 145(3), but I do think that's a reason to constitute a bench to figure it out (thus my comment). I actually just put a post up about this. Appreciate any feedback as I'm not sure I understand the distinction you were trying to make between my paraphrasing and the actual text of the Constitution.