In Centre-SC showdown, it is people awaiting justice who suffer the most
The Supreme Court’s allegation that the government was stalling appointments of high court judges is an indication that the face-off between the two is getting more complicated by the day.
Chief Justice of India TS Thakur has expressed his frustration over the inordinate delay in judicial appointments. At a function where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was present in the national capital earlier this year, he was almost in tears while talking about the problem.
His anger is understandable. Many courtrooms in high courts are locked because there are no judges. Most high courts are functioning at less than 60% of their strength even as the collegium’s recommendations for appointments have been pending for months. More than 450 posts of judges out of the sanctioned strength of 1,079 are vacant while close to 3.9 million cases are pending in 24 high courts. The apex court — which has a sanctioned strength of 31 — has five vacancies. The situation is likely to get worse next month as two SC judges are slated to retire.
The government has its own arguments. Had it intended to stall, it would not have appointed 86 new judges to the high courts, four to the Supreme Court, 14 chief justices to the high courts and accepted the collegium’s recommendations for the transfer of four chief justices and 33 judges from the high courts since December.
But the blame game between the Centre and Supreme Court is not helping either in making the process of judges’ appointments transparent or in filling vacancies. While this face-off continues, people awaiting judicial redress are suffering the most. In many high courts, it takes almost 10 years for a murder convict’s appeal to come up for hearing.
The problem lies in the fact that the political class has yet to digest the 1993 verdict by which the judiciary arrogated to itself all powers to appoint SC and HC judges to the exclusion of the executive. And then the apex court declared the National Judicial Appointments Commission unconstitutional and revived an admittedly opaque collegium system.
The judiciary must realise that the elected government has a legitimate stake in the matter. If it is not allowed to have its say legitimately, it is bound to try other methods. The approach adopted by the judiciary has failed to serve any purpose.
There are dissenting voices from within the collegium as is evident from the questions raised by Justice J Chelameswar. Lack of transparency is a problem highlighted by the apex court’s constitution bench and it must be addressed at the earliest. Every call for judicial reform can’t be blocked in the name of judicial independence.
Mr Modi had suggested that some senior people from the government and the judiciary should sit together and sort out the differences. This should be done before the matter escalates to the level of a constitutional crisis.