‘I am a servant of the law and Constitution’: CJI on abolishing collegium
“As a lawyer you have the freedom to pursue your heart’s desire. But as a judge of this Court, I am a servant of the law and the Constitution.”
New Delhi: Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud described himself as a “servant of the law and the Constitution” when a lawyer claimed that the CJI ought to do away with the system of collegium and designation of senior advocates.
“As a lawyer you have the freedom to pursue your heart’s desire. But as a judge of this Court, I am a servant of the law and the Constitution. I have to follow the position and the law laid down,” justice Chandrachud told advocate Mathews J Nedumpara.
The CJI’s comments were prompted by Nedumpara’s submissions that though justice Chandrachud has ushered in a spate of reforms, the reforms relating to collegium and senior designation were much needed to take judiciary to new heights.
Nedumpara was appearing for a group of lawyers, who have filed separate pleas against the existing judges’ selection mechanism and the system of designating lawyers as senior advocates.
One of these pleas has sought the abolition of the collegium system of judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and the high courts while favouring the revival of the National Judicial Appointments Commission or NJAC.
In 2014, the NDA government passed the National Judicial Appointment Commission (NJAC) Act, setting up an alternative system for the appointment of judges to constitutional courts which also proposed a greater role for the government in the process. But, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional as it sought to tinker with the independence of the judiciary.
Although the Constitution does not provide for a collegium system of appointing judges where the first three or five judges of the Supreme Court and high courts propose names for the appointment of judges in the constitutional courts, the collegium system came into being by virtue of three judgments of the top court between 1982 and 1998.
In the backdrop of the supersession of senior judges and en masse transfers by the central government, the top court institutionalised the collegium system to protect the independence of the judiciary and shield it from external influences. In 1999, the Centre, in consultation with the CJI, framed the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) to guide the two institutions in matters of appointment and transfer of judges of Supreme Court and high courts.
The lawyer’s petition has asked for review of the NJAC verdict, arguing the 2015 judgment should be rendered void ab initio as it had revived the collegium system. The petitioners called the collegium system a “synonym for nepotism and favouritism”.
In the other plea, the lawyers have pressed for a review of a recent judgment of the Supreme Court that affirmed the practice of designating a class of lawyers as senior advocates in the apex court and high courts, stating that the practice cannot be held to be “untenable” or “creating an artificial class of distinction”.
By a judgment in October, a bench led by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul held that the practice of designating seniors in the constitutional courts is based on intelligible differentia and standardised matrix of merit.
While dismissing the petition filed by Mumbai-based Nedumpara along with seven other advocates, the court had called the petition a “misadventure” and a part of an ongoing “vilification campaign” by the petitioners.