The Coelho case is one of the landmark judgments of the Indian Judiciary that defines the basic structure of the constitution. The judgment stated that items listed under the ninth schedule are susceptible to judicial review. The Judicial review enables judicial inquiry and scrutiny towards any law which violates the basic structure of the constitution.
This judgment validated the previous decision in the case ‘Keshavananada Bharti VS the state of Kerala’ that outlined a few constitutional principles and values as the constitution’s ‘basic structure’ that cannot be subjected to amendments by the legislature.
Few constitutional principles like federalism, Secularism, the right to equality, independence of the Judiciary that includes judicial review encompass the basic structure of the constitution. Therefore the Judiciary stands as a guardian to protect fundamental rights in a democratic country that upholds the ‘rule of law’ under that constitution.
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Adding to that, such items in the ninth schedule cannot invalidate fundamental rights as they form the basic structure of the constitution. Hence any amendment under the ninth schedule should conform with the fundamental rights.
This judgment interpreted and redefined judicial review. It considers judicial review as a prominent tool used to safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens from the breach of power by the executive and legislature. Without Judicial review, the stability of the constitution can be threatened by arbitrary laws. It ensures the independence of the Judiciary and upholds the democratic powers of the republic. The Judiciary has previously used this tool against provisions that can harm the fundamental rights of individuals in cases like:
- Indra Sawhney vs Union of India- In this case, the concept of the creamy layer was laid down. Judicial review prevented the reservation of backward classes from exceeding 50 percent of the total seats.
- NJAC case – The Supreme Court using the tool of Judicial Review, dismissed the 99th constitutional amendment or the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act that granted the politicians and civil servants the decision-making power in appointing judges.
“The expectation from the judiciary, to safeguard the rights of the citizens of this country, can only be ensured, by keeping it insulated and independent, from the other organs of governance,”
-Justice J.S. Khehar
“The concept of basic structure as a brooding omnipresence in the sky apart from specific provisions of the Constitution is too vague and indefinite to provide a yardstick for the validity of an ordinary law.”
The basic structure has always been a subject of variant interpretation. The judgment received critical backlash from a variety of groups.
Critics argued that the continuous changes by the Judiciary hamper the decision-making power of the legislature and executive. The other branches of the government feel powerless and exhausted by the constant tug of war.
They believed that the added principles and doctrines build up obscurity and vagueness to the basic structure. Instead of defining the basic structure clearly, the Indian Judiciary shrouded its contemporary judgments.
However, in a democratic republic like India, constant reviews and judgments ensure the inherent flexibility and relatability of the constitution. The three branches work in harmony and reflect a symbiotic relationship. Therefore, the nine-judge bench in its landmark judgment of the Coelho case upheld judicial review as a vital feature of the basic structure of the constitution.