25 Nov - 1 Dec 2016 #834

Justice-in-chief

Fiercely independent, Sushila Karki is determined not to be a token female and has flouted convention throughout her career
Binita Dahal
SHAHIDUL ALAM / DRIK / MAJORITY WORLD


In the 65 years of the history of Nepal’s judiciary, Sushila Karki became the first female Chief Justice in April for a 14-month tenure. Being the 26th Chief Justice she is leading the Supreme Court at a challenging time. 

Parliament has promulgated a new constitution but there is dissatisfaction especially among the people in the plains to some of its provisions. Her tenure has also seen the rise and fall of Lokman Singh Karki who headed an anti-corruption agency, but emerged as a parallel power centre. She also faced a backlog of cases with only seven justices in the Supreme Court. And as per the constitution, she needs to supervise the setting up of seven new high courts in seven federal provinces within one year.

Sushila Karki could not hit the ground running because Parliament took more than three months to ratify her appointment as Chief Justice because the three main parties could not agree on the composition of the Parliamentary hearing committee. However, ever since she was confirmed she has taken the bull by the horns, catching up with all the pending work in the administration of the judiciary and to restore the public’s faith in the independence of the Apex Court.

In his last day as Chief Justice, her predecessor Kalyan Shrestha told the media that the Supreme Court had a strong leader under Sushila Karki. Another former Chief Justice Ram Prasad Shrestha had once said that he selected Karki as a Supreme Court justice not because she was a woman but because of her integrity, dedication, fairness and courage. 

Indeed, Karki proved her independence through her verdicts in some well-known corruption cases. She is the one who convicted J P Gupta when he was a sitting information minister. As someone reputed to be close to the Nepali Congress because of her Biratnagar background, it is interesting that Justice Karki’s gavel fell mostly on Congress politicians in corruption charges.

It was only Sushila Karki with Justices Bishwamber Shrestha and Sapana Pradhan Malla who dared reopen the case about the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki as the head of the CIAA which had been scrapped earlier by the Supreme Court. A new bench will start the much-awaited hearings on 1 December. There is a lot hanging on the case since Lokman Singh Karki also faces an impeachment motion in Parliament.

Sushila Karki was born into a well-off family in Biratnagar that was close to the Koirala clan. Fiercely independent, she also flouted convention at a young age to live by herself and not with her family. Forty years ago, there were very few women going to law school, but Sushila Karki bucked the trend becoming a successful lawyer in Biratnagar and Dharan. 

She married former congress politician Durga Subedi who was always unemployed. Subedi looks after their children and Karki is the one who earns for the family (see interview, below). Before taking up the Chief Justice residence in April, Karki and Subedi lived in a sparse rented room in her sister’s home in Dhapasi. The family is known for its frugality and simplicity.

This being Nepal, there were many who did not trust Sushila Karki to take a leadership role. Some Justices didn’t have too good a reputation, and middlemen were know to to fix cases. How could a woman Chief Justice survive in such a hotbed of intrigue? People dismissed her as a token female. They said she lacked understanding of constitutional, economic and tax related issues. She was accused of favouring women in her cases. But even her staunchest critics now admit that she has shown integrity and fairness, restoring the Supreme Court’s prestige.  Sushila Karki is determined to leave a mark, and if her past seven and a half months on the job is any indication, she will be known for bold decision-making and leadership. By the time she steps down in April 2017, she aims to leave a legacy with landmark judgments. Given the nature of some of the pending cases, it will not be easy for Sushila Karki.  

The remaining six and a half months of her tenure will be equally challenging to cap her nearly 40 years of judicial experience.  She has both the challenges and opportunity to prove herself while some well-known and crucial cases are pending in the Apex Court.

Read also:

Who cares, Sangeeta Thebe-Limbu

Checking and balancing, Binita Dahal

Not silenced, Editorial

The lonely struggle against tyranny, Bidushi Dhungel

I will not spare the corrupt

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