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The Supreme Court of Singapore

November 14, 2018

My wife and I were in Singapore recently for a 3-day Hindu wedding of a lawyer friend of ours. Naturally we had to find time to visit the Supreme Court. We found our way to the Supreme Court building and inquired of an official if the Supreme Court justices were sitting. This got me a look of puzzlement and a suggestion to “try room 4 there on the left.” Immediately I thought “Ah, they must follow the New York model—Supreme Court means supreme trial court.” So we went, and indeed a trial was proceeding. The attendant at the door instructed us to bow toward the judge as we entered. The proceedings were in English and the judge was engaging in colloquy with the plaintiff’s lawyer (they are not barristers—any lawyer can appear in the trial court) in a way reminiscent of how a colloquy between justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and a lawyer usually occurs: very occasionally the lawyer was able to get a thought in edgewise.

It must have been a big case, because there were two rows totaling five lawyers on both sides, and each lawyer had a screen in which a simultaneous transcript of the proceedings appears to have been displayed. I also counted about six court officials in attendance in addition to the judge.

After 15 minutes or so of a detailed discussion of the law of damages in contract cases, we bowed out and asked someone where appeals are heard. We were told “Here, in the Supreme Court, but it’s not sitting today.” “Oh,” I replied, “I thought the Supreme Court was a trial court.” “Well,” he responded, “it’s both; when it sits as a trial court, it is called the ‘High Court’ and when it sits as an appellate court it is called the ‘Court of Appeals’; both courts are collectively called the ‘Supreme Court’ because they are the same judges. Two of them sit together to hear appeals from lower courts, and three or five of them sit together to hear appeals from the High Court, i.e., from one of their colleagues.”

While most everything else about Singapore is new and glitzy, its Supreme Court reminds me of Connecticut’s long history of having the Supreme Court justices also be Superior Court judges, and having Superior Court judges be qualified to sit on the Supreme Court if summoned. Indeed, Singapore’s Supreme Court set up is even more reminiscent of Connecticut’s judicial system between 1807 and 1818, when the nine Superior Court judges, when sitting together, were the Supreme Court.

Wes Horton

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