In the public eye, the higher judiciary’s rulings in recent times have cast it in the hallowed role of a defender of our rights and freedoms. One would then naturally expect this crucial arm of our constitutional democracy to set itself the highest standards of conduct. On the contrary, it has, time and again, come under a cloud for showing an utter lack of accountability. The most recent such revelation comes from a central government statement on successive Chief Justices of India (CJIs) asserting their primacy on the appointment of high court judges. In the process, ironically, they have ignored a procedure for judicial appointments set by the apex court itself in a 1998 judgment. According to the Centre, between 1999 and 2007, as many as 351 additional judges were appointed as permanent high court judges without the CJIs mandatorily consulting a Supreme Court collegium consisting of four senior judges.
The Indian judiciary has regularly bared its teeth at any attempts to bring outside influences to bear upon it. Whether it be the case of judicial appointments or ascertaining the probity of our judges, it has taken every such occasion to guard its autonomy jealously rather than to bring greater transparency into the system. The setting up of a National Judicial Council — which has been in the offing for many long years for the very purpose of making the judiciary accountable — has faced tremendous resistance, among other things, over the fact that its numbers would be made up of not just members of the judiciary, but also representatives of the executive. With probity among those in the executive and the legislature at an all-time low, no one is under any doubt about the need to keep our judiciary free, as far as possible, from political pressure and influence.
Even so, it would be a dangerous trend to allow the judiciary to function in a non-transparent manner. Rumours of favouritism and bias in judicial appointments, which have surfaced from time to time, do not bode well for the image of one of the very few institutions in this country to still retain the respect of the people. The judiciary would only be harming itself if it cannot ensure that judges, especially those appointed to the higher level, are backed up by strong credentials.