The aphorism in question is,
‘We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible
only because we are final.’
It was stated by Justice Robert Houghwout Jackson (February 13, 1892 – October 9, 1954) in Brown v. Allen 344 US 443 (1953).
Prior to his appointment as US Supreme Court judge (1941-54), Justice Jackson had earlier served as United States Solicitor General (1938-40) and United States Attorney General (1940-41). He is the only person to have held all three of these offices. He is also notable for his work as Chief United States Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.
There are many similarities as well as differences between our and US constitution. Unlike our constitution, there is nothing like concurrent list in the US Constitution, where both (union as well as state) can legislate. Apart from it, there is difference in the court system as well. We have only one court system that hears all kinds of cases. However, in the US there is dual court system: federal and state courts. Broadly, they hear violations of federal or the State law respectively.
The highest court, in State law violation cases, is the State Supreme Court though if the federal constitution is also involved then the matter can be taken to the US Supreme Court, also known as federal Supreme Court.
In Brown v. Allen, the Appellants were convicted by the state courts. Their conviction and their claim regarding violation of federal constitution was decided against them by the state courts. Against these orders, their application to file appeal before the US Supreme Court (known as application for certiorari) was denied, however no reasons were assigned. They filed application for Habeas Corpus in the federal district court on the ground that in selecting jury, federal constitution was violated.
The applications were dismissed by the federal district court and the Court of Appeals affirmed the order. Against these orders, appeals were taken to the US Supreme Court. The question was as to when such an application for Habeas Corpus can be granted.
The US Supreme court held that the earlier denial of appeal by US Supreme Court without stating any reasons can not be a ground for rejecting the application by the federal district court. However, while upholding the orders of dismissal, laid down the principles as to when a Habeas Corpus can be granted.
Basically, the case involved reviewing decision of the state courts. Justice Jackson agreed with the conclusions but wrote his separate opinion. Here, he observed,
'Conflict with state courts is the inevitable result of giving the convict a virtual new trial before a federal court sitting without a jury. Whenever decisions of one court are reviewed by another, a percentage of them are reversed. That reflects a difference in outlook normally found between personnel comprising different courts. However, reversal by a higher court is not proof that justice is thereby better done. There is no doubt that if there were a super-Supreme Court, a substantial proportion of our reversals of state courts would also be reversed. We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.'
It is so true with our supreme court: it is not infallible; it does commit mistakes. Had there been a higher court then many of its judgements, including some of the recent ones, would be set aside. It is not only important for the Supreme Court to remind itself of it but to imbibe it as well.
Ex. Chief Justice Chhattisgarh High Court,
Senior Advocate, Supreme Court India.
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