Deadlock between Centre, judiciary back in spotlight
The delay in clearing the name of P Krishna Bhat as a judge of the Karnataka high court has once against brought to the fore the issue of the government taking time to clear the appointment of candidates recommended by the collegium, the body of Supreme Court judges which recommends appointment of judges to high courts and the Supreme Court.
The collegium, on October 15, 2019, passed a resolution repeating its recommendation to appoint Krishna Bhat as a judge of Karnataka high court. This was the third time the collegium was recommending the appointment of Bhat.
Bhat’s name was first recommended by the collegium on August 23, 2016. It was returned by the government to the collegium, which stood by its recommendation by way of a resolution dated April 6, 2017. This was repeated on October 15, 2019 when the collegium, in fact, went to the extent of directing the central government to process the file relating to Bhat’s appointment “most expeditiously”.
While the government can ask the collegium to review its recommendations, it can’t overrule an appointment. However, there is no mandated time limit within which it has to approve recommendations.
While other collegium recommendations made in October 2019 regarding appointments to the Karnataka high court have been processed by the government, the appointment of Bhat is yet to be notified.
The episode generated lot of attention particularly after justice Jasti Chelameswar wrote a strongly worded letter in March 2018 to then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra taking objection to the interference by the government on the elevation of Bhat to the high court. This letter said that the executive was trying to impede Bhat’s appointment.
Bhat was embroiled in controversy in 2016 when a complaint was filed against him by another judge, MS Shashikala . The complaint was investigated by the then Karnataka high court chief justice SK Mukherjee who cleared Bhat while also noting that Bhat, while serving as a District and Sessions Judge in 2014 sent a report to the high court concerning the misconduct of Shashikala who was then a Judicial Magistrate ( First Class). Justice Mukherjee stated in his report that Shashikala made allegations against Bhat to malign him.
When the collegium recommended the elevation of Bhat to the Karnataka high court, the central government sought a report from the high court chief justice on Bhat. Justice Chelameswar in his letter to CJI Dipak Misra took objection to the same stating that there was no such instance in the past he could recollect when the executive bypassed the Supreme Court collegium regarding a recommendation made by it and sought a report directly from a high court chief justice.
“This is not the first time that the Collegium has failed in getting its recommendations implemented”, senior advocate Yatin Oza said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior law ministry official said Bhat’s recommendation was “under active consideration”.
In 2018, the elevation of Justice KM Joseph to the Supreme Court was delayed for almost eight months before it was eventually notified in August 2018.
Former CJI TS Thakur broke down during a conference of chief ministers and chief justices in April 2016 citing delay by the central government in clearing names recommended by the Collegium for appointment as judges.
The high courts in the country are functioning with only 63% of their sanctioned strength as per the latest figures released by the Ministry of Law and Justice. As on January 1, 2020, there were only 678 judges in the 25 high courts in the country as against a sanctioned strength of 1079.
The Supreme Court also took note of the growing number of vacancies in high courts and said, in December 2019 that the government must make efforts to ensure that the appointment of judges happens within six months of their names being put up by the collegium.