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Home / India / Who’s afraid of impeachment?

Who’s afraid of impeachment?

As PM calls for “honest and competent” judges, HT launches a three-part series on why it’s impossible to impeach those who have gone bad. Nagendar Sharma and Satya Prakash report.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2008, 00:08 IST
Nagendar Sharma and Satya Prakash
Nagendar Sharma and Satya Prakash
Hindustan Times

It will take more than mere intentions and words to impeach a corrupt judge in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for honest judges, but how do you keep them in line if they have no fear of punishment. Not even impeachment.

Some former judges of the Supreme Court have said that the impeachment process is so “highly politicised” and ineffective that Calcutta High Court judge Soumitra Sen needn’t worry.

Justice PB Sawant, who headed the inquiry committee in the impeachment motion against Justice V. Ramaswami, fears: “Political lobbying may rescue any judge. It has happened in the past. What is the guarantee it would not happen now?”

“The time has come for introspection to ensure judicial appointments at all levels live up to... exacting standards...,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a function in Delhi.

The process of impeachment in India has come under scrutiny after the law ministry initiated the process to remove Justice Sen, on charges of financial impropriety. This is the second attempt to impeach a judge since the adoption of the Indian constitution. The first, of Justice Ramaswami, failed.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Raju Ramachandran, who assisted the Sawant Committee as its counsel, said impeachment did not seem possible in the era of coalition politics where parties were guided by regional and parochial considerations. He recalled how all the 205 Congress MPs abstained from voting on impeachment motion against Justice Ramaswami.

“Impeachment system involving Parliament is highly politicised, ineffective and does not work. This procedure with glaring loopholes cannot succeed in its present form,” said Justice Sawant, a former Supreme Court judge, who chaired the three-member panel that probed the allegations of corruption against Justice Ramaswami in 1991-93.

“The system to remove judges is impractical, cumbersome and heavily dependent on politicians,” Justice Sawant told HT, adding, the outdated system needed a complete overhaul.

Ramachandran agreed. He said: “It is a totally inadequate and unsatisfactory procedure.” The requirement of two layers of political scrutiny — to initiate the impeachment motion and then a two-thirds majority in both the Houses of Parliament to pass it, besides a judicial finding by the committee — makes it too cumbersome, he said.

Even if a single member of the inquiry panel disagrees with the findings, the impeachment motion fails, Justice Sawant said.

Former CJI V.N. Khare, who succeeded in securing the resignations of Justice Shamit Mukherjee of the Delhi HC (for corruption) and Justice Arun Madan of the Rajasthan HC (for misconduct), said: “The process for impeachment and in-house procedure for taking disciplinary action against judges has not been effective at all.” Terming it as a “cosmetic exercise”, he said: “This procedure requires legal backing to make it effective.”

The in-house procedure — agreed upon by the SC judges in 1999 — was meant to empower the CJI and High Court Chief Justices to probe corruption allegations against judges.

Bar Council of India Chairman, S.N.P. Sinha said the failure of the impeachment system was evident from the fact that not even a single judge could be removed since 1950.

Justice Sawant, Sinha and Ramachandran - all agreed that the solution lay in setting up of a broad-based National Judicial Commission with powers to appoint, transfer and remove judges. This panel should have representatives from the Judiciary, Executive, Legislature and the Bar, they added.

Justice Sawant lamented that the committee tasked with investigating the judge marked for impeachment had no powers to take any action against the judge be ing probed, if he or she refused to appear before it.

A copy of the in-house procedure in possession of HT shows that the CJI in case of the Supreme Court and the Chief Justices in case of High Courts were given powers to form a judges' committee to probe allegations and initiate the process for removal of the erring judge, if he or she was found guilty. But the mechanism largely remained ineffective.

Tomorrow: The closed world of judicial appointments,

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