What Are Two Ways That A Supreme Court Decision Can Be Overturned?

Introduction to the Supreme Court:

India is a quasi-federal state operating under a parliamentary-federal constitution that establishes both the center and the constituent states along with its judicial machinery the Supreme Court and the High Courts, respectively.[1] The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land and no judicial body has greater or more extensive power than it as it binds all the lower courts by its decisions which are effective law.[2] Article 124(1) of the Indian Constitution calls for the establishment of a Supreme Court with 34 judges including a Chief Justice.[3] The highest court of the land has original, appellate and advisory jurisdiction.[4] It has also been granted several powers by the Constitution which allow it to carry out a system of checks and balances on the legislative and executive wings of the government by a process known as judicial review. This allows the court to check the arbitrary actions if any, of the government. It also allows the court to check the inaction of lethargic governmental authorities.[5] The Court, additionally, has the power to issue directions, orders and, writs like habeas corpus, certiorari, quo warranto, mandamus, and prohibition – each dealing with a specific situation allowing the Court to mediate and solve the issue at hand by giving the necessary directives.[6] The Court also has the option to transfer the cases being heard by lower courts if it deems that it involves a substantial question of law involving the interpretation of the Constitution or if the lower court does not have the requisite jurisdiction to hear the matter or to meet the “ends of justice”, in accordance with set constitutional limits.[7]

Ways to Overturn a Supreme Court Decision:

There are two major ways in which the decisions rendered by the highest court of the land can be overturned –

1. Review Petition – Article 137 of the Constitution allows the Supreme Court to review any decision rendered by it if it conforms to the rules and provisions under Article 145.[8] This, in essence, provides the Court the power to overturn its old judgments if a review petition is filed in accordance with set guidelines. It aims to prevent a gross miscarriage of justice by providing the Court with an opportunity to rectify its mistake if any.

A review cannot be filed merely to reiterate a point of view or elaborate or seemingly fix an inaccurate stance. It can only be initiated if there is a blatant error that has been made on a matter of law or fact which needs immediate rectification and does not require a fresh hearing of arguments.[9] This is because the latter would mean that fresh arguments could be presented on a previously decided case, skewing views, and this would effectively defeat the purpose of a “review” which calls for a simple re-examination or re-evaluation. Usually, the practice is that the decision rendered by the Supreme Court will be final and binding, not subject to any modifications. Therefore, a review is only initiated for specific and compelling defects and must be considered carefully and seriously so as to not delegitimize the process.[10] A judgment can be reviewed for the following reasons – the discovery of new evidence or information, apparent errors, and other sufficient reasons which may qualify depending on the discretion granted by the Court.[11]

An example of a review jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in action can be seen in Rajesh Sharma v. Union of India. In the judgment, the Court declared that if there is a complaint regarding harassment for dowry, then an arbitrary arrest cannot be made under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code without prior verification of the charges. This brought considerable criticism from the public as it further endangered the lives of the women filing such complaints and defeated the purpose of filing such a complaint if adequate evidence was missing. Hence, a review petition was filed under the Supreme Court guidelines. After reviewing the judgment, the Supreme Court changed its previous decision and modified certain necessary guidelines as it reached the conclusion that it wasn’t their job to prevent misuse of the law by seemingly improving legislation.[12]

2. Legislative Amendment – Although the Supreme Court’s verdict is considered to be absolute and final unless the Court decides to entertain a validly filed review petition and change its decision on the basis of certain obvious factors, another prominent way in which the government tries to overturn or sidestep the decision of the Court is by introducing and attempting to pass a constitutional amendment which nullifies the decision of the Court and returns things to status quo or any opposing position from the one sponsored in the decision.[13] Separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary is considered to be part of the basic structure doctrine as established in Keshavananda Bharti v. the State of Kerala.[14] However, a system of balances and checks is exercised by the judiciary on legislative organs through the process of judicial review and the legislature attempts to do the same by passing constitutional amendments to overturn decisions considered to be unfair or seemingly against public policy. More often than not, however, this turns out to be an arbitrary exercise of the power to make amendments to the Constitution as it aligns with the political beliefs of the party in power and not in the interest of general public welfare. Even though introducing an amendment in Parliament is a tedious task, it becomes necessary when the government is unable to ignore the judgment delivered due to the Court’s wide-reaching powers which compel them to perform certain tasks.[15] While the option of filing a review petition remains, it is often very tough to actually have the Supreme Court consider such a petition as they are usually dismissed, and therefore, for high stake situations, a constitutional amendment is introduced in Parliament to circumvent the decision.[16]

These amendments are often struck down by the Supreme Court to revert the status quo to the decision delivered by the body. For example, in State of Tamil Nadu v. K Shyam Sundar, the Supreme Court passed a judgment saying that Tamil Nadu would have to follow a system of “uniform education” in accordance with the Tamil Nadu Uniform System of Education Act, 2011 as the current system glorified the rule of the DMK, a prominent political party in the State.[17] The legislature passed an amendment annulling this decision through powers granted to it by the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court struck down this amendment and therefore, the State was unable to sidestep the judgment.[18] Many such instances are present in modern-day India where political influences and affiliations play a major role in policy and law-making.

Hence, review petitions and legislative/constitutional amendments are two ways to overturn the decision of the Supreme Court.


[1] Nɪᴄʜᴏʟᴀs Aʀᴏɴᴇʏ & Jᴏʜɴ Kɪɴᴄᴀɪᴅ, Cᴏᴜʀᴛs ɪɴ Fᴇᴅᴇʀᴀʟ Cᴏᴜɴᴛʀɪᴇs: Fᴇᴅᴇʀᴀʟɪsᴛs ᴏʀ Uɴɪᴛᴀʀɪsᴛs? (2017) available at https://books.google.co.in/books/about/Courts_in_Federal_Countries.html?id=1p3CDgAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y (Last visited on June 8, 2020).

[2] The Constitution of India, 1950, Article 141.

[3] Id., Article 124(1).

[4] Id., Article 131, 132-134 & 143.

[5] Id., Article 226 & 227.

[6] Id., Article 139.

[7] Id., Article 139A.

[8] Id., Article 137.

[9] Choudhury, Abhisek, Review Jurisdiction of Supreme Court of India: Article 137 (April 4, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2169967 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2169967

[10] Northern India Caterers v. Lt. Governor of Delhi, 1980 AIR 674.

[11] Supra note 9.

[12] 2018 (4) KHC 508 (SC).

[13] Bloomberg Quint, Often, The Supreme Court is neither right nor final: Chintan Chandrachud, February 13, 2020, available at https://www.bloombergquint.com/law-and-policy/often-the-supreme-court-is-neither-right-nor-final-chintan-chandrachud (Last visited on June 8, 2020).

[14] AIR 1973 SC 1461.

[15] Business Standard, M J Antony: Ducking judgments, January 21, 2013, available at https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/m-j-antony-ducking-judgments-111090700067_1.html (Last visited on June 8, 2020).

[16] Id.

[17] (2011) 8 SCC 737.

[18] Supra note 15.

This article is authored by Ishita Mundhra, First-Year, B.A.LL.B (Hons.) student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences.

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