March 11, 2007
Think About It But Don’t Ask Questions…*
By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India
New Delhi (UNI) – Asserting that judicial corruption is existent– albeit ”not rampant”– justice experts have stressed reforming the way judges are appointed and disciplined.
But discussing Appointment and Removal of a Judge of the Supreme Court, panelists acknowledged last week that such reforms might be struck down by the courts as offending the basic structure doctrine.
That doctrine is an offshoot of a Supreme Court ruling of April 24, 1973 that Parliament cannot amend India’s Constitution insofar as its ”basic structutre” is concerned.
The panelists who included former Chief Justice of India J S Verma and former Delhi High Court Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar went over changes the government proposes to make in law.
The other panelists: former Attorney General Soli Jehangir Sorabjee, senior advocates K K Venugopal and A K Ganguly and journalist Harish Khare.
The Judges (Inquiry) Bill, 2006 now before Parliament seeks to establish a National Judicial Council to look into allegations of misbehaviour or incapacity of the Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts; regulate the procedure for such investigation, inquiry and proof; and provide for minor disciplinary measures.
Key changes allow complaints against errant judges– to be rejected or processed by a judges forum– resulting in either minor measures or removal.
Reform is also intended to introduce transparency in judges’ appointments, a process mired at present in opacity.
Over the past few weeks, for instance, President A P J Abdul Kalam has raised queries on two senior judges’ appointments– reflecting incongruities in the process at work.
”There is an urgent need of a legislation for establishing a National Judicial Council,” Law and Justice Minister Hans Raj Bhardwaj has noted in the Objects and Reasons of the Bill.
The Minister said the Council would look into ”allegations of misbehaviour or incapacity of a Judge of the Supreme Court or of a High Court…”
He said it was based on judicial independence, a fundamental of the Constitution inseparable from judicial accountability.
Initiating the discussion, Sorabjee said ”There is judicial corruption,” but ”not rampant.”
Sorabjee wondered how former CJI S P Bharucha arrived at a figure of 20 per cent judges being corrupt– an estimate some of his successors have tended to discount.
Some three years ago the Bar Council of India, the statutory body of the nation’s million or so lawyers, demanded transfer of 130 judges– nearly a fifth of incumbents– from High Courts where their kin practise.
The practice is among don’ts spelt out under the BCI Rules of Standards of Professional Conduct and Etiquette.
Critics say by most standards any sort of misconduct by a learned Judge should be unimaginable.
They cite a Delhi HC Additional Judge whose resignation brought to the fore allegations that he availed himself of indecent hospitality while the host wrote a ‘judicial’ order in his name in an adjacent room.
Critics say that since a Supreme Court judgement in 1993, the onus of appointing Judges is on the judiciary, but no responsibility is fixed for lapses by selectors.
Justice Verma spoke of a perception that what the executive did when it controlled the hiring process is now done by the judiciary, although there may be a difference of degree.
He said given a provision for complaint, a Chief Justice seeking a Judge’s explanation need no longer face the counter-question: ‘Who are you ?’
But he questioned so-called minor measures, pointing out the untenability of public reprimand of a judge. After that ”how do you expect a Judge to function.”
Justice Verma was against excluding the CJI from the purview of the proposed legislation. ”I don’t think it’s advisable. The CJI must not be excluded.”
The CJI, he said, is essentially no different from other Judges but such exclusion may send out a signal to the contrary.
Most speakers opposed a limitation proviso in the Bill which seeks to disallow complaints arisen before the enactment.
Justice Verma emphasised that ”Your past should have nothing to hide.”
Hailing the complaint provision, Venugopal said once a show cause goes out to a Judge, all other Judges would ”sit back and take notice”.
He said the very fact of notice would have a salutary effect on Judges, but Sorabjee did not appear to think so.
Venugopal acknowledged the probability that the reform might not go far. ”It may be struck down.” Khare stressed that the judiciary set its house in order.
Sachar said there was ”no need for appeal” provided in the proposed draft against a disciplinary decision taken after an elaborate procedure.
Ganguly questioned long gaps in appointing Judges. He said at times senior advocates sounded for judgeship did not hear about it again for years.
Ganguly suggested letting the Prime Minister preside over the group that selects Judges, but the idea was considered inappropriate by another panelist as the Prime Minister is head of the government which is often a litigant.
Concluding the discussion, the panelists told the mostly lawyer audience to ”think about” the issues– but allowed no questions.
An advocate who sat through the discussion said afterwards the key problem with the system was appointments made from a close circle of professionals– what he dubbed ”judicial inbreeding”.
Ravi Mohan acknowledged in reply to a question that his assertion was not based on an academic or administrative study but his empirical experience.
The remedy: make the system transparent, he said, adding that all consideration in respect of an appointment from the first step– inviting biodata– onward must be public knowledge.
”It’s well known that no disinfectant works better than sunlight through an open window.”
UNI MJ HS MIR KP1152