The Supreme Court on Friday tore into the government for “scuttling” the working of judiciary by sitting over appointments of high court judges, triggering a fresh round of confrontation with the Centre.
“Today we have a situation where courtrooms are locked because there are no judges. For example, Karnataka where one floor is shut. Why don’t you lock the courts and lock out justice?” Chief Justice of India TS Thakur said. “Executive inaction is decimating the institution (judiciary).”
Hours later the Centre hit back, saying the court should make appointments in higher judiciary transparent. Minister of state for law and justice PP Chaudhary told HT that the Supreme Court collegium should focus on clearing the memorandum of procedure (MoP), a set of guidelines on appointment of judges to the apex court and high courts in the country.
The Centre and the top court are at loggerheads since the SC struck down the national judicial appointments commission (NJAC) act . The law was brought in to end more than 20-year-old practice, unique to India, of judges appointing judges under the collegium system, with government having no say in the process.
The court had asked the government to frame the MoP, to be finalised in consultation with the CJI and the collegium but the two sides have failed to agree on it.
“We don’t want to give rise to a situation where one institution clashes with another. We have waited patiently, but would surely save the institution from any kind of an onslaught,” the CJI-headed bench told the government.
The court even wanted to summon senior PMO and justice department officials but later decided against it on attorney general Mukul Rohatgi’s request.
The country’s top law officer has till November 11 to update the court about the steps taken by the government. Rohatgi has to also explain why the government was “cherry-picking” from the list of candidates cleared by the collegium.
The court was hearing a public interest litigation seeking a direction to the government to speed up judicial appointments in 24 high courts which are together short of 450 judges. More than four million cases are pending in these courts.
“You are scuttling the working of the institution… “You cannot bring the entire institution (of judiciary) to a grinding halt,” the bench said.
The court, which has asked the Centre to show urgency, disapproved of the government clearing names selectively when Rohatgi said of the eight names sent for Allahabad high court, two were cleared.
“What about the rest?...If you have any grievances with any names please send the files back,” the CJI said. “We are also humans and can make errors. We will rectify the mistake, if any.”
CJI Thakur got more upset when Rohatgi said the appointments couldn’t be fast-tracked because the MoP was not in place. He reminded Rohatgi that the government had assured the court that appointments would not be stalled even if the MoP was pending. “If you insist that MoP should be in place then we can constitute another five-judge bench to clarify its not required,” he said.
Justice Thakur said the government couldn’t force a deadlock if there was no unanimity on MoP. “Why did you make those appointments? Now, have you changed your mind,” he asked the AG, referring to 86 appointments that were made after the court struck down NJAC.
“What are you waiting for? Some kind of a revolution,” the court said.
The government also came under fire from the opposition. The Congress accused the Modi government of weakening democratic institutions. “This government has been systematically and deliberately undermining democratic institutions of this country, including judiciary,” Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi said.
The case will now be heard on November 11.
(With inputs from Jatin Gandhi)