On October 19, stepping to the lectern at 184 Myron Taylor Hall, Dean Eduardo Peñalver talked about Cornell Law School's long history of global engagement, from its founding to the present day, and its deep commitment to comparative and international law.
He mentioned the four months he’d spent living in New Delhi, and after describing India as “by far the largest democracy in human history,” he welcomed the afternoon’s four distinguished guests: Justice Surya Kant of the Punjab and Haryana High Court; Justice Manmohan of the High Court of Delhi; Manoj Kumar Mohapatra, deputy consul general at the Indian consulate in New York City; and Honorable Justice T. S. Thakur of the Supreme Court of India, who was scheduled to speak on “Public Interest Litigation: Emerging Trends and Challenges.”
“Like the United States, India is religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse,” said Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. “Like us, it is committed to bringing all of these plural groups together within a democratic constitutional framework. We share with India not only a commitment to constitutional democracy and the rule of law, but also a common legal heritage and language.”
Then, introducing Honorable Justice Thakur, Peñalver talked about one of the most significant differences between our two systems: Article 32 of the 1949 Indian constitution, which guarantees every citizen access to the courts and allows the judiciary to take direct action to promote justice when political processes have failed.
“It is an instrument against inactivity, against inequality,” said Thakur, who is due to become Chief Justice before the end of this year. Tracing the history of Article 32, Thakur outlined three major phases in the evolution of judicial activism, beginning with 1979’s Husnara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar, which upheld the right of prisoners to receive free legal aid and be granted a speedy trial.
In the first phase, courts focused on issues of fundamental human rights for bonded laborers, child laborers, people in prisons, women, the poor, Dalits, and members of other disadvantaged groups. In the second, justices expanded their focus to include protections for the environment; and in the third, to issues of property, transparency, and institutional integrity. At times, the justices acted on letters sent to the court, requests from activists, institutions, and NGOs, or simply suo moto, on their own, becoming the principal legal remedy for the common people, and firmly establishing the practice that Thakur called “India’s contribution to law and justice.”
“The right to life,” he added, summing up these four decades of public interest litigation, “includes the right to live in dignity.”
“Public Interest Litigation: Emerging Trends and Challenges” and “International Trade and the Rule of Law in India,” which featured Justice Surya Kant and Justice Manmohan later that afternoon, were co-sponsored by Cornell Law School, the Berger International Legal Studies Speaker Series, and the International Human Rights Clinic.