Merit must be the key: Justice Nariman on SC appointments

Updated on Aug 13, 2021 04:28 AM IST

Addressing a gathering of his colleagues from the Supreme Court, and senior and junior lawyers, justice Nariman was of the view that a greater number of lawyers should be appointed as judges.

Justice Rohinton F Nariman retires (HT photo)
Justice Rohinton F Nariman retires (HT photo)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

At a time when an unprecedented stalemate has prevented the Supreme Court collegium from making any appointment in the top court for 21 months, justice Rohinton F Nariman, who retired on Thursday, said that “merit must predominate” in judges’ appointments to ascertain that the people of India get quality justice.

“Nobody has any legitimate expectation to come to this court. I believe there is a legitimate expectation in the people of India and the litigating public to get a certain quality of justice from this final court. For that, it is very clear merit must predominate, subject to all other factors. The merit must always come first,” justice Nariman said at an event organised by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) to bid farewell to him.

The function was presided over by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, who said he felt in justice Nariman’s departure from the top court as if he was “losing one of the lions that guarded the judicial institution”.

Addressing a gathering of his colleagues from the Supreme Court, and senior and junior lawyers, justice Nariman was of the view that a greater number of lawyers should be appointed as judges.

“I will second Mr Vikas Singh (president of SCBA) that it is time that more direct appointees were elevated to the bench. I would also say and exhort those direct appointees, who are asked, never to say no. It is their solemn duty, having reaped so much from the profession, to give back,” emphasised the outgoing judge, who is only the fifth lawyer in Indian legal history to be directly appointed from the bar.

Since the retirement of justice Ranjan Gogoi as the Chief Justice of India in November 2019, the collegium has not sent even a single recommendation to the Union government for appointments in the top court, which will have nine vacancies after justice Nariman’s exit. Additionally, justice Navin Sinha is set to retire on August 19, which will leave the Supreme Court with 10 vacancies out of 34.

The previous CJI SA Bobde’s 17-month tenure turned out to be the only one in the judicial history when a CJI demitted office without making any recommendation for the Supreme Court after the advent of the collegium system in 1990s.

As reported by HT on February 21, the impasse in the collegium, according to the people familiar with the development, persisted due to justice Nariman’s firm stand over recommending justice Akil A Kureshi, currently chief justice of the Tripura high court, as a judge in the apex court.

Justice Nariman had asserted that any recommendation to be made by the collegium of the five most senior judges must include justice Kureshi, who stood at number 2 in all-India seniority list of high court judges. A lack of consensus within the collegium has stalled appointment of judges in the top court ever since.

The standoff over justice Kureshi, HT reported at the time, may cost the country the opportunity to have its first woman CJI since it has led to uncertainty over the timely elevation of justice BV Nagarathna from the Karnataka high court, who, if elevated now, could become India’s first woman CJI in 2027.

Speaking at the farewell function on Thursday, SCBA president and senior advocate Vikas Singh on Thursday said that a fitting tribute to justice Nariman by the collegium will be to elevate the outgoing judge’s picks. “I will beseech the CJI and all the judges in the collegium to ensure all the judges, he (justice Nariman) wanted appointed in the Supreme Court in his last few days, should be elevated,” said Singh.

CJI Ramana paid rich tributes to justice Nariman.

“It is rare to find those who stand by their principles. Brother Nariman is one of them... He has left an indelible mark on the jurisprudence of the country...Our loss will be a huge gain elsewhere. I am sure; that gain will continue to be for the larger public good,” said justice Ramana, highlighting that justice Nariman has delivered around 350 judgments in his seven years’ tenure disposed of nearly 13,565 cases.

‘NOT AN EASY LIFE’

Both the CJI and justice Nariman underscored that a judge’s life is not a bed of roses.

“We either burn the midnight oil, or wake up before sunrise, or sometimes even both, to fulfil our judicial duties. We continue to work even during the Court holidays, do research and author pending judgments. Therefore, when false narratives are created about the supposed easy life led by judges, it is difficult to swallow,” said CJI Ramana.

Justice Nariman -- his father is the eminent jurist Fali S Nariman -- emphasised that taking up judgeship after being a lawyer was not a cakewalk. “When I was at the bar, I had no idea how it would be like to be at the bench. This side (as a judge) is much more difficult than a lawyer. You have to read much, much more..I cannot say I enjoyed every minute of being a judge. It is very hard work. But I certainly enjoyed writing judgments. At the end of it all, it has worked out well,” he said.

Justice Nariman also thanked attorney general KK Venugopal, whom he calls his “guru”, and in whose chamber the retiring judge had worked after he moved from Mumbai to Delhi in 1986.

Justice Nariman also expressed his gratitude for former CJI RM Lodha, who had persuaded him to become a judge. “He (justice Lodha) did the greatest possible service to me by making me do a public service in turn as a judge. He said he won’t accept no. And that is how, by accident, I became a judge,” quipped justice Nariman.

Justices AM Khanwilkar, L Nageswara Rao, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, BR Gavai, and V Ramasubramanian were also present at the function.

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