By Vijay Darda | 13-02-2017
It is a routine procedure for the courts to serve a notice of contempt of court to a common citizen, a political leader or a government officer. But the serving of such notice to a senior sitting judge is a newsworthy event.
The Madras High Court judge Justice C S Karnan wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in January 2017, stating: “Though your decision of demonetisation has reduced corruption in other sectors, it is still rampant in the judiciary”. Besides, he attached to it a list of 20 judges who were allegedly involved in corrupt practices. Around this time, he dashed off a letter to the Chief Justice of India Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar and the Central government wherein he made several allegations against the chief justice.
The very act of a sitting judge writing such letters to the Prime Minister and any other officer in the government is wrong and illegal. The one reason for Karnan to indulge in such an act could be attributed to the eccentric trait in his personality.
Consequently, the Supreme Court served a show-cause notice to him. He has to reply to the show-cause notice to the Supreme Court by February 13. At the same time, the Supreme Court constituted a seven-member special committee under the Chief Justice of India and carried out a detailed probe into the conduct of Karnan. On recommendations of this committee, Karnan was transferred from Madras High Court to Calcutta High Court. But Karnan proved to be a tough cookie and stayed the transfer order himself by exercising his judicial powers. When he subsequently realised that his conduct was wrong, he expressed regrets about that and left Madras for Kolkata. But while doing so, he left all the papers and documents pertaining to judicial work at home and kept them locked in his chamber. The attorney general of India Mukul Rohatgi filed a complaint in the Supreme Court stating that the conduct of Karnan was an insult to the dignity of court and an impediment in the working of judicial system and urged the court to issue an order to Karnan to deposit all his documents with the Madras High Court. On this, the Chief Justice of India ordered that Karnan should be divested of all the powers. At the same time, Chief Justice of India also barred Karnan from working. Now Karnan has to submit to the Supreme Court clarifications for his conduct, contempt of Supreme Court and staying his own transfer. In his comment on the case, Justice Khehar has noted that such an event of utter frivolity and illegal conduct never took place in the judicial history of the country and hence this case needs to be taken seriously.
Some years back, the Chief Justice of Bombay High Court had stayed the verdict of a judge of Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court and hence that judge served the notice of contempt on the chief justice. Not stopping at that, he had ordered the police department to produce the chief justice before him. At that point in time the Supreme Court intervened and put an end to what could have been a laughable and contemptuous incident.
I will not say that the Indian judiciary is totally flawless and efficient. There are over three crore cases pending before the various courts in the country and hence an evil-like corruption is bound to sneak into it. Besides, there is deep rooted suspicion about the entire process of recruitment in this field. Howsoever clean and transparent the persons might be while entering the profession, who will guarantee that they will not get spoilt in the course of time? That is why such posts have been occupied by many eccentric and questionable characters. We are aware of the judge who passed the order lifting the ban on dance bars in Mumbai on the eve of retirement or the chief justice in Delhi who bought a mansion for Rs 100 crore a day prior to his retirement. A probe is underway at present into the illegal assets amassed by two retired chief justices in the country. Adv Prashant Bhushan filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that half of those who occupied the post of chief justices of India were corrupt. Just imagine the state of affairs in the state and district courts if the Supreme Court itself is in such a mess. Good jurists are not willing to be appointed as judges to the high courts and Supreme Court, Adv M C Setalvad had told the country in his judicial inquiry report in 1960.
Karnan’s conduct is not exceptional. Visit the Bar room of any court and you will get to hear about the stories of such eccentric and bizarre judges. It will be a significant achievement if such an eccentric behaviour of Karnan awakens the authorities concerned on the need to undertake speedy reform in the judicial system. To remove a judge, an impeachment process has to be conducted and it has to be approved by two-third majority in both the Houses of Parliament. It is more difficult than removing the Prime Minister. May be that is the reason why the judges like Karnan feel reassured about their security of job. They can not be removed, can not be criticised and there is no discussion on them in the Parliament and even the media has to keep its mouth shut. Such circumstances can make any judge a Karnan and hence the urgent need for reform is felt.
In 1993, impeachment proceeding was initiated against Justice Ramaswamy. But because he hailed from the southern part of the country, the MPs from south India came together in his defence. When the impeachment process was initiated against the Calcutta High Court judge Justice Soumitra Sen, I myself participated in the proceedings. But when he realised that the impeachment motion would get through in the Parliament, Justice Sen tendered his resignation. Notably, as many as 64 judges have been impeached in the US so far.
The appointment of judges should be done in a transparent manner through the collegium system which is in place. At the same time, a powerful mechanism should be established to verify the validity of their judgements. Similarly, a strong mechanism with the authority to question the conduct of senior judges should also be established. Such a mechanism already existed in England and America. The matter of fact to be noted here is that the persons accountable to none are more likely to go berserk. Justice is the fundamental right of the people and to ensure that the judicial system should not only be clean and transparent but seen to be so too.