How do you deal with the problem of more than 6,000 corruption cases and nearly 5,000 criminal cases pending against politicians, some dating back almost 40 years? The answer, according to India’s Supreme Court: put a one-year time limit on cases involving politicians.
This decision, which was issued this past September in a “public interest litigation” case, seeks to increase public confidence in the judicial process and to make the legal system more effective in addressing India’s pervasive political corruption. Corrupt politicians in India are typically able to slow down legitimate prosecutions, for example by exploiting India’s complex court filing procedures, leading the cases to drag on for years or even decades. This delay increases the chances that key evidence will be lost or obscured—a process that corrupt defendants can and do help along by bribing, threatening, or even killing witnesses. By preventing cases from ending in conviction, corrupt politicians have created a de facto culture of impunity. The problem is particularly acute in the current parliament, where 43% of new members elected in 2019 had pending criminal charges. The Supreme Court’s order seeks to address this and other problems.
This isn’t the first time that the Supreme Court has ordered fast-tracking. The Supreme Court previously called for time-bound trials against politicians back in 2011, during the tenure of the corruption-riddled Congress Party, yet the case backlog remained. There is reason to believe, though, that this time is different. The current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in part by making anticorruption efforts a priority, and there are signs that the BJP’s general commitment to anticorruption may be having a meaningful impact in the context of the one-year order. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the highest courts in (most) states submitted action plans for dispatching cases, and India’s Solicitor General said that he is “100% serious” about completing trials within a year. Despite certain serious challenges to effective implementation of this new fast-tracking program, India’s renewed commitment to moving the wheels of justice more quickly could prove powerful in holding corrupt politicians accountable and restoring public confidence in the judiciary.
To be fair, support for time-bound trials is far from unanimous. A common criticism of speedy trials is that they undermine the search for the truth by preventing the parties’ lawyers from adequately gathering evidence and preparing their positions. But this concern has little empirical support: studies show that trial efficiency and effectiveness—when appropriately balanced—are not mutually exclusive and are, in fact, closely related. Critics also worry that time-bound trials will produce “assembly-line justice,” with judges rushing proceedings along while ignoring case-specific facts or limiting a defendant’s ability to consult counsel. But although assembly-line justice may be a serious concern for other classes of defendants, it simply doesn’t apply to cases involving Indian politicians: the complexity of corruption cases all but ensures individualized treatment, and politicians enjoy easy access to counsel.
Despite the benefits of the one-year plan, there are two main reasons why achieving this one-year goal could be difficult to achieve in practice:
- Lack of Judicial Resources: The biggest impediment to meeting the one-year timeline is the existing judicial infrastructure. The Supreme Court’s order itself noted that the current number of courts is insufficient to handle the case volume. Even though India has hundreds of Special Courts focused on adjudicating specific issues, only a few dozen hear corruption and other criminal cases against politicians. Some states do not have any of these Special Courts, and others have too few. Even where Special Courts exist, their caseloads are too heavy. Expanding the number of courts would require adding more judges, an already a scarce resource: India, with four times the population of the United States, has less than one tenth the number of judges. (Many attribute this judge shortage to poor pay and lack of opportunities for advancement.) If India has any hope of meeting the one-year goal, the existing cadre of judges needs help.
- Lack of Investigative Resources: India’s Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), the federal body charged with investigating political corruption cases and other and crimes by politicians, already struggles to conduct timely investigations. The CBI recently reported that the shortages in staff and investigative resources prevent it from effectively tackling the operational challenges associated with complex corruption investigations. Lack of resources combined with difficult cases can cause investigations to pile up, sometimes into the thousands. A one-year time limit could worsen these problems, and might put pressure on the CBI to prematurely close some investigations.
These resource shortages pose daunting challenges. But neither problem is insurmountable, so long as India has the requisite political will. And there are plenty of reasons for optimism. States have begun setting up new Special Courts to try cases against politicians. The national government has offered additional funds for court equipment and staff, and has introduced legislation enabling the recruitment of more judges with increased pay. India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated several other needed judicial reforms, such as videoconferencing hearings and electronic case filing, two seemingly minor changes that will significantly speed up proceedings. The government has also increased the CBI’s annual budget, and the CBI is exploring innovative ways to increase its own efficiency. For example, it has initiated efforts to promote cooperation and information-sharing with state and local law enforcement agencies, recruited retired police officers to participate in certain local investigations, and reorganized units for more expedient operations. Moreover, the Supreme Court recently clarified that the CBI may investigate corruption cases involving state-level politicians without prior approval from the state government, a decision that is expected to alleviate contentious and time-consuming jurisdictional battles.
The Supreme Court’s order to close cases against politicians within a year, combined with the increase in judicial and investigative resources needed to meet this mandate, could have a lasting positive impact on India’s anticorruption system. Properly executed, the one-year limit will help protect the integrity of the judiciary against attempts by defendants to delay or tamper with proceedings, and will send a powerful message to the Indian public that the judiciary is committed to—and capable of—addressing the problem of political corruption. Doing so will demonstrate that politicians are not immune from genuine legal accountability for their misdeeds.