Chief Justice of India RM Lodha has taken strong exception to the government “unilaterally” segregating former solicitor general Gopal Subramanium while approving the appointment of three other candidates as Supreme Court judges.
“I have taken objection to the segregation, unilaterally done by the executive without my knowledge and concurrence. It was not proper,” the CJI said Tuesday, breaking his silence on the controversy that broke when he was travelling abroad.
Accusing the government of dealing with an appointment to a high constitutional post in a casual manner, he added, “In the last 20 years, I have fought for independence of the judiciary and for me this is one subject that is non-negotiable... I will be the first man to leave this chair if I know independence of the judiciary has been compromised; I will not hold my office even for a second then.”
Reacting to the CJI’s criticism, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told HT, “The government has the highest regard for the judiciary, including the independence of the Supreme Court and all other courts of India. It also has the highest regard for the Chief Justice of India.”
On June 19, the law ministry had turned down the recommendation of the Supreme Court collegium — a group of top SC judges headed by the CJI — for appointment of Subramanium as an SC judge, questioning his “suitability” for the post while citing negative CBI and Intelligence Bureau reports on him. Ministry sources had defended the segregation, claiming there were precedents.The executive can object to a particular name but in such a scenario, it normally sends back the entire file for the collegium’s reconsideration.
However, in this case, it rejected Subramanium’s name while clearing the elevation of three other candidates — Calcutta and Orissa high court chief justices Arun Mishra and Adarsh Goel, respectively, and senior advocate Rohinton Nariman. The three are yet to take oath though.
On June 25, Subramanium wrote to the CJI ruling himself out of the race, accusing the government of “character assassination” and admonishing the judiciary for not asserting its independence. He also went public with his anguish.
Subsequently, jurists, including former CJI MN Venkatachaliah, accused the government of taking over the collegium’s role.
Speaking at a farewell function on Tuesday for justice BS Chauhan — one of the collegium members that recommended Subramanium’s name — the CJI said he had assured Subramanium that the collegium would reiterate its decision recommending him if he considered taking back his withdrawal letter. He also expressed regret that the senior counsel had gone public with his letter despite his assurances. “I was shocked,” he said.
CJI Lodha said he learnt about the government decision only on his return on June 28, though he had spoken to Subramanium on two occasions — June 24 and 25. On the day of his return, the CJI met Subramanium and “requested” him to withdraw his letter. A day later, he received a 30-word regret letter from the senior counsel. “I discussed the issue with the collegium members and two future CJIs and felt there was no point pursuing the matter further,” the CJI added.