It’s 10 a.m. on Friday, and the July day is just heating up. Attorneys and their clients are slowly packing into the courtroom, but there’s no sign of the judge, Syed Mansoor Ali Shah.
“Is he even coming?” an elderly man asks his lawyer.
The lawyer is on his phone, checking messages and news feeds. “This new chief, he doesn’t decide any contempt-of-court cases against the government,” he coolly tells his client, “he lets them linger. The chief is easy on [the government].”
This was an odd assessment since Shah’s 25-year career as a lawyer and judge has been built on zoning out and defying expectations, his refusal to have justice serve any masters.
In late 2014, he heard the case against the appointment of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister’s daughter, as chief of the Prime Minister’s Youth Program, which disburses interest-free loans to aspiring entrepreneurs. His ruling forced Sharif to resign her position, and pundits and court watchers immediately downgraded Shah’s odds of becoming chief justice of the Lahore High Court. But, to the credit of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which rules both in Islamabad and in the Punjab, Shah, despite being viewed by some as a thorn in the ruling party’s side, was sworn in as the 45th chief justice of the Lahore court on June 28.
When Chief Justice Shah, 53, arrives in court, he is all business. Today, he is hearing petitions against the seemingly unchecked construction and commercial activities in Lahore’s Old City that, petitioners say, is threatening heritage sites, some of which date back to the 16th century. In this case, he is at apparent odds with another Sharif, Punjab’s go-getter chief minister, Shahbaz, architect of the under-construction Orange Line metro train project which snakes far too close for comfort to some of Lahore’s Mughal-era heritage sites.
“Who decides which heritage site should be protected?” Shah asks.
“My lord…” the Punjab government’s counsel nervously looks through his notes.
“The government? Isn’t the government marking historical sites? Okay. When was it decided that areas of the Walled City could be used for commercial activities?”
“It has always been like this,” replied the lawyer.
“Always? What do you mean by always?” asks the judge.
The small army of lawyers representing the Punjab government in Shah’s court does not appear to have any answers. It’s also clear they were expecting few, if any, questions from the judge.
Shah is having none of it. “This is a serious matter. I want the chief secretary of Punjab here on Monday. Let’s continue then.”
The following month, Shah rendered judgment halting the Orange Line project. In the ruling, the chief justice reaffirmed the right to life and freedom guaranteed in the Constitution, but went further. It’s not just that citizens have an equal right to life; this life must also be worth living. Here, Shah linked the safety and preservation of UNESCO-listed heritage sites of Lahore as essential to the quality of life of citizens.
In an earlier gavel slam against the Punjab government, Shah had also ruled against the now-completed 7-kilometer “signal free” stretch of Lahore’s Jail Road.
“It is submitted that Rs. 1.5 billion of the taxpayers’ money is being spent to convert a 7-kilometer road into a high-speed corridor for only 8-percent motorists of the city, with no regard for the pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized persons who are in majority,” he ruled, taking a dim view of the failure of government officers to conduct mandatory environmental impact assessment studies for public debate and review. The Environment Protection Agency of the Punjab “unashamedly suffers from naked regulatory capture at the hands of the provincial government,” he wrote in his judgment, which ordered the Punjab government to remove all machinery and equipment and demobilize from the site. Shah also ruled that any new development projects should only be undertaken after the local government elections.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the Lahore High Court decision and allowed the Punjab government to complete the signal-free corridor.
Another case that’s bound to come Shah’s way is the Punjab government’s plans for an eight-lane elevated expressway, which could uproot some 5,000 trees.
Bureaucrats are not used to judges strong enough in their convictions and beliefs to defy the government of the day. “I can’t really comment on Justice Shah,” Amir Khan, director of land acquisition at the Lahore Development Authority, told Newsweek after the signal-free ruling. “But in my opinion, his verdict was not needed. It did come across as unfair. You should not stop development just to save a few trees.”
“It was very powerful,” says Dr. Parvez Hassan, 75, one of Pakistan’s foremost environmental lawyers, of the same ruling. “It was an intellectual approach to the case. The justice asked, and rightly, how the Environment Protection Agency, which is paid by the chief minister, could say ‘no’ to him. How can it be independent?”
Enemy or Ally?
Shah has scarcely any difficulty saying no or speaking truth to power. Does this mean he has it out for the ruling party and the Sharifs?
Part of the problem is the 2007 lawyer’s movement—of which Shah was a part—that made justice a zero-sum game in the popular imagination, where judges were either “antigovernment” or “pro-government.” Those close to him say Shah, like scores of other judges across Pakistan, is neither. But the unjust binary of those heady, street-fighting days still lingers in political and media minds like a cheap hangover. It’s in this context that Shah’s elevation was newsworthy. The day following his swearing-in as chief justice, lawyer Babar Sattar wrote in The News: “Someone like him being appointed chief justice of Pakistan’s largest province is a miracle.”
Perhaps it was a miracle. “The legal fraternity had a running joke that if someone were to ask the prime minister and the chief minister of Punjab who the next chief justice should be they would likely name anyone but Mansoor Ali Shah,” an advocate of the Supreme Court told Newsweek asking not to be named. But the fact is that the federal law minister, Zahid Hamid, and the attorney-general, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, both supported Shah’s promotion.
The ruling party, whose relationship with the judiciary has greatly evolved since the storming of the Supreme Court in 1997 and which continues to evolve its hot-cold relationship with the Army, should take comfort in Shah’s pro-democracy credentials. “In the past, the judiciary has failed to honor democracy by allowing undemocratic traditions to take root,” Shah says in his paper “Salvaging Democracy—Judiciary Our Last Hope,” adding: “However, the past must not hamper our future. In the future, the judiciary will have to step out of its colonial formalism and traditional common-law conservatism and translate itself into a robust, enlightened and progressive judiciary.”
Make no mistake, Shah has an agenda. He intends to reform the judiciary, infamous in Pakistan for rabid partiality, judicial activism, and an inability to dispense timely justice.
Unlike Iftikhar Chaudhry, the deeply flawed symbol of the lawyers’ movement, Shah does not pander to any constituency. Barely a month in office, he suspended 30 judges for failing to properly fulfill their public duties. This independence is not a new streak. During the 2013 general elections, Shah felt judicial officers doubling as electoral officers were going too far in scrutinizing the “morals” of candidates. At the time, video footage of these officers quizzing candidates about Islamic traditions and sayings, and asking absurd questions (“How many wives do you have and how many nights do you spend with each of them?”), was leaked to the media to embarrass the candidates, and the whole democracy project. Shah issued a ruling putting an end to “random intrusive and inquisitive questions” when accepting nomination papers.
At a conference on the environment in Rio de Janeiro, lawyer Hassan was with him when Shah received a call that got the usually calm judge worked up. Shah had got word that a lawyer had misbehaved with a woman judge in Lahore, forcing her to leave her own courtroom. “This will not happen on my watch,” Hassan recalls Shah as saying. In Lahore, Shah suspended the offending lawyer’s license and fined him half a million rupees. “He is awesome,” says Hassan, “he is fearless and unimpeachable. Shah will make a difference in the High Court like no other judge in my living memory ever has—and I am ancient.”
“We are starting a new chapter in judicial history,” Shah told a roomful of judges, shortly after taking office as chief justice, promising technology to assist the court and proper lunch and prayer breaks for overworked judges. “You will all get new iPads,” he said, “Please don’t use them to watch movies.”
“When you appoint someone who has a reputation of being reform-minded and very independent, he is not going to be somebody who will be amenable to being controlled,” says Islamabad-based lawyer and columnist Sattar. “Most of the reform ideas, I would say 80 percent or more, have come from this one man.”
Contrary to idle parlor talk, Shah and the Punjab government also seem to be coming along fine. At his urging, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has constituted a committee to work through budgetary and administrative issues the judiciary faces in the Punjab. “There are people who feel Shah might have an ax to grind with the government,” says lawyer Uzair Karamat Bhandari, who has known Shah since 1991, “but there is no truth in that. He is one of the best judges to appear before. However, day in and day out, he sees a pattern in how the government operates. And if you keep following that pattern, you lose credibility in front of a judge.”
Sweating the Small Stuff
As his rulings attest, Shah is intellectually rigorous and always prepared. He studied law at Downing College, Cambridge University, and has degrees in economics, math and French from the University of the Punjab. The father-of-three starts his day at 6:30 a.m., does the stationary bicycle, meditates, and then drives himself to the court, where he catches up on the news for an hour or so before starting proceedings. As a lawyer he argued over 2,000 cases and he brings the same devotion to detail and research to his position as judge.
“He makes it a point to order books on any subject [under deliberation] and finishes them before writing his judgments,” Alizeh Ali Shah, the chief justice’s 22-year-old, law-student daughter tells Newsweek. “I was proud of my father,” she says of his signal-free ruling, “He was speaking up for the environment. He has often talked about how this money could be spent on better facilities for education or healthcare instead of just building more roads.”
Shah has been embraced by environmentalists and rights’ activists across the board for his fearless clarity of thought. Earlier this year, he revived a section of the Christian Divorce Act, 1869, which allows couples to file for separation and seek divorce. During the Zia years, this law had been changed to link separation and divorce to proof of adultery. Shah’s ability to go beyond mechanical adjudication and delve into institutional and policy issues from the perspective of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution is fueling his rising national prominence.
The chief justice would likely balk at being seen as a revolutionary. Those who have worked with and known him for years say the soft-spoken Shah retains a strong sense of who he is and what his job is. He does not believe in grandstanding or being bulldozed. That in itself is a revolution as far as Pakistani judges go. As for his reforms agenda, Shah has time on his side. He isn’t due for retirement until 2024.