Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju’s allegations that three successive Chief Justices of India made “improper compromises” to save a “corrupt judge” of the Madras high court have once again exposed the shortcomings in the judicial appointments system.
Justice Katju’s allegation of political pressure — confirmed by the then law minister HR Bhardwaj — have come close on the heels of the recent faceoff between the judiciary and the executive over the latter’s refusal to appoint senior advocate Gopal Subramanium as an SC judge.
Read: Uproar in Parliament as Katju alleges ally pressured UPA govt to protect corrupt judge
The allegations raise serious questions about judicial independence and allude to murky deals made to save the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-I government.
To suggest that a tainted high court judge was allowed to continue in order to save the UPA-I government is too serious an allegation to ignore, notwithstanding the compulsions of coalition politics Manmohan Singh faced.
Be it the recommendation to appoint then Karnataka HC chief justice PD Dinakaran as an SC judge or the latest tussle between the judiciary and the NDA government over proposed elevation of Karnataka HC judge KL Manjunath as the chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana HC — judicial appointments have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Read: Spot-the-judge game begins in Chennai
Under Article 124(2) and Article 217(1) of the Constitution, a judge of the Supreme Court and that of a high court respectively have to be appointed by the President after ‘consultation’ with the CJI.
As an answer to attempts to install a committed judiciary by Indira Gandhi in 1970s and early 1980s, the SC in 1993 devised the collegium system as a bulwark against political interference. Under this system, top judges of the SC appoint judges of the higher judiciary.
Often described as “give and take” between the government and judiciary, this system has been under attack for some time for its complete opacity.
However, of late there has been political consensus that collegium system must be replaced. In September last year, the Rajya Sabha passed the Constitution (120th Amendment) Bill, 2013 but it has lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. Interestingly, the accompanying Bill on the composition of Judicial Appointment Commission (JAC) — introduced in the Rajya Sabha and referred to the parliamentary standing committee — is still alive.
PRS Legislative Research president NR Madhavan said “Unless the mother bill ie Constitution Amendment Bill is passed, the JAC Bill can’t be taken up.”
Read: Demand for probe into Katju's charges, timing questioned
Supporting the idea of having an independent body to appoint judges, advocate Prashant Bhushan, convener of Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reform, said: “Unfortunately, neither the judiciary nor the government want to have a rational and transparent system for selecting judges. Each just wants a greater part of the appointments pie, without ensuring that the system will select the most honest and competent judges.”
There are certain anomalies in these bills, including the composition of the JAC. Now it remains to be seen how soon the NDA government re-works and re-introduces them in Parliament.
Read: Bhardwaj says DMK sought extension for HC judge