July 31, 2017
In varying parts of the world, recent political crises have hinged on the activist role played by supreme courts. All democracies need courts and judges to defend the rule of law, safeguard constitutional order and check executive power. But we’ve seen a number of glaring instances this year when courts have instead derailed or threatened to subvert the democracies they’re supposed to protect.
This month, Poland was convulsed by protests against the government’s attempt to revamp the nation’s courts. The country’s right-wing leadership saw the judiciary as a liberal impediment to its rule and pushed legislation that would allow government officials more direct control over the selection of judges. Critics at home and politicians abroad saw the move as part of a worrying authoritarian turn. Broad popular opposition and the prospect of international censure seem to have stalled the controversial reforms — for now.
For a demonstration of what happens when you can’t guarantee the independence of the judiciary, consider Pakistan. On Friday, after months of hearings, Pakistan’s Supreme Court dismissed the country’s elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The judges disqualified Sharif from office for hiding his family’s assets, tapping into widespread public frustration with the Sharif family’s notorious “‘mafia’-like financial dealings,” my colleagues reported.
Sharif’s prominent political rival, former cricketer Imran Khan, hailed the ruling as “the beginning of a new era in the history of Pakistan” in which there would no longer be “two types of laws, one for the weak and one for the wealthy and powerful.” Khan, who brought the charges against Sharif last year, will vie to replace him in elections expected next summer.