India’s top judge lashed out at the Centre on Saturday over the large number of vacancies in the high courts and his successor warned of striking down any future law that would impede the judiciary’s independence.
Union law minister Ravi Shankar shot back by reminding how the top court “failed” the country during Emergency and attorney general Mukul Rohatgi mentioned a “lakshman rekha” for the judiciary.
The stinging comments by Chief Justice of India TS Thakur and justice JS Khehar, the CJI-in-waiting, was the latest in the face-off between the government and the judiciary over the appointment of judges since the Supreme Court 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 the government having no say in the process.
“There are around 500 vacancies in the high courts today . These judges should be working today, but they are not. At present, there are several vacant courtrooms in India but no judges available. A large number of proposals are still pending and hope the government will intervene to end this crisis,” Thakur said at a conference of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT).
Thakur, who is set to retire in the first week of January, voiced his concern over delays in disposal of cases due to a large number of vacancies in the high courts and various tribunals, which he said, were not equipped well enough to attract retired Supreme Court judges to head them.
The CJI’s comments came days after the government objected to 43 names cleared by the top court’s collegium for appointment as judges to the high courts in three states. The collegium, however, overruled the objection and returned the file to the government.
Prasad said the BJP-led government has appointed 120 high court judges, adding it was the second highest number of appointments since 1990. The highest number of appointment of 121 judges was made in 2013, Prasad said.
“We have the deepest regard for the CJI but we respectfully disagree with him…5,000 vacancies are there in the lower judiciary in which the government has no role to play. That is only something for the judiciary to take,” he told reporters.
In a separate function later in the evening, Prasad said the judiciary must respect the separation of powers.
“Legislation must remain preserve of the legislature. Problems will resolve if all organs remember domain. Courts must give orders, set-aside illegal decisions, but governance must remain with those elected to govern,” he said in the presence of Thakur and justice JS Khehar.
Before Prasad spoke, Khehar said if the legislature brings about changes in the Constitution, such as the recent NJAC Act that had elements of interference with the judiciary, the SC will always strike it down.
His remarks were in response to attorney general Mukul Rohatgi’s comments that judiciary must maintain its lakshman rekha as underlined in the Constitution.
(With inputs from agencies)