Three great luminaries of Pakistan’s superior judiciary are Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius, Justice Dorab Patel and Justice Bhagwan Das, ironically all three non-Muslim judges of a Muslim country. Standing head-and-shoulders above all others and shining bright in a small galaxy of judicial personalities is Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius, who served as the fourth chief justice of Pakistan from 1960 to 1968. In addition, he also served as the Federal Law Minister in the Yahya Khan Cabinet from 1969 to 1971.
Cornelius was born in 1903 in Agra in an Urdu-speaking Anglo-Indian Roman Catholic family. He went to school to St. Peters College Agra and subsequently to Cambridge University in Britain. He joined the Indian Civil Service as an assistant commissioner. He started his judicial career in the Lahore high court in 1943 and opted to make Lahore his hometown for as long as he lived.
Cornelius was a renowned jurist and wrote some important textbooks on Pakistan’s legal history, along with being a leading activist during the Pakistan movement for independence. In 1946 he was elevated to associate judge of the Lahore High Court. In the early days of Pakistan, he served as Law Secretary under Jogendra Nath Mandal the Law Minister in the Liaquat Ali Khan cabinet. In 1960 he was appointed Chief Justice of Pakistan by President Ayub Khan and became the first Christian chief justice, and one of the most famous and influential figures ever to serve on the Supreme Court.
After retirement, Cornelius remained a symbol of the protection of the rights of minorities and freedom of religious practices, and also served as legal advisor to successive governments. On judicial matters, chief justices before him such as Justice Sir Abdur Rashid and Justice M. Munir were steeped in the British tradition and were essentially very secular in thought and practice. Cornelius, in fact, was different. He believed that Pakistan was an “Islamic country” and should not follow the British model, but create a synthesis of Islamic ideals with modern thought. He once called himself a “constitutional Muslim.”
Justice Cornelius expanded the scope of fundamental rights in Pakistan. During his tenure as Chief Justice, the country remained mostly under martial law. When parliamentary democracy had been wiped out under the Ayub dictatorship, he made sure that the courts played their part for protection and enforcement of fundamental rights in Pakistan. Justice Cornelius was an epitome of truth, equity and good conscience and had already played an important role in the Pakistan movement. As a patriotic citizen of a new Islamic state he emerged as a great advocate of human rights. The judgments of Justice Cornelius formed the basis for introducing ‘judicial review’ of administrative action, and the principles of natural justice.
His historic dissent in Maulvi Tamizuddin’s case is a model of judicial courage and uprightness in the annals of the history of Pakistan. The background of this case is that in April 1953, the Governor-General by using his arbitrary powers dismissed the government of Khawaja Nazimuddin. To curb such activities in the future, the Constituent Assembly passed two amendments curtailing his jurisdiction. In response, the Governor-General dissolved the Constituent Assembly and proclaimed an emergency, forming a new government under Mohammad Ali Bogra. Subsequently, Bogra included General Ayub Khan, the C-in-C in his cabinet, as defense minister. This was the beginning of the army taking over civilian responsibilities and the end of the supremacy of the civilians over military power. Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan, being the President of the Constituent Assembly, challenged emergency and dissolution of the Assembly, as “unconstitutional and illegal.”
Mr. Hamid Khan, a senior advocate of Supreme Court, in an article “Justice A.R. Cornelius: Services and Contributions to Justice System in Pakistan” wrote:
“The cornerstones of Justice Cornelius’s legal philosophy could be summarized in three points: (a) Law has a moral function in society; (b) Law should be culture-sensitive, and (c) Islam is a valid foundation for a universal society.”
He had full belief in the fact that fundamental rights provided in the constitution of Pakistan were based on the principles of democracy, freedom, tolerance and social justice. He will always be remembered for his emphasis on the rule of law, enforcement of fundamental rights and separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, opposition to mala fide acts or orders from public officials, and protection of the citizens from unjustified detention under preventive detention laws. His judgments were examples of democratic principles and he rendered a great service to the citizens of Pakistan by extending the rule of law, due process of law, equality among citizens, fundamental rights and democracy.
Justice Cornelius can very rightfully also be called the father of test cricket in Pakistan. He pioneered the and promoted the game of cricket in Pakistan and for many years managed the affairs of cricket as the President of BCCP, and managed to take Pakistan to the heights of fame and glory in international cricket.
In traits of moral character and personal virtues, he stands at the pinnacle of honesty, decency and truth. He held some very high posts all his life but lived a very frugal and simple life. He and his entire family lived in rented accommodations until 1984 and later he shifted to the Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore, where he lived until his death in 1991. He once said “for our people, affluence is poison.” He never occupied the official house of the chief justice and led a very simple life, never had an entourage of retainers or bodyguards that he was entitled to as Chief Justice and even retained his old model 1953-make Wolsey car till his death.
His judgments in many famous cases clearly establish his deep concern for the protection of the rights of a common citizen against the powerful state and its powerful establishment. He strongly believed that it is a duty of the judiciary to come to the assistance of a common man who is facing powerful government officials, armed with the coercive powers of the state. His emphasis on the rule of law and due process of law; the enforcement of fundamental rights; separation of powers particularly between the executive and the judiciary and his life story have been important lessons for those who stand for judicial independence and integrity today.