Standards of conduct for the higher and lower judiciary are different when some judges mix with politicians and lawyers at parties, according to Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, a former chief justice of the Delhi, Bombay and Madras High Courts.
He pointed out that judges from the lower judiciary would be pulled up for partying with politicians and lawyers whereas some judges from the 24 High courts and the Supreme Court get away with this. This was why a new bill to make judges accountable was the need of the hour because the last three chief justices of India had flouted the axiom that no judge should decide his own case. A committee to hear complaints against judges should consist solely of judges, he said.
Be that as it may, Justice Shah seems to have echoed the views of former Supreme Court judge Jasti Chelameswar who accused Justice NV Ramanna in 2017 of being too close to former Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. Ramanna is presently a collegium member. In April 2017, Chelameswar wrote to the then CJI JS Khehar objecting to what he called “unwarranted intimacy” between Justice N.V. Ramanna and Naidu which came to the fore in almost identical letters sent by both objecting to the elevation of six lawyers as High court judges of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
The names of the six advocates were proposed by the former acting chief justice at Hyderabad, Dilip Basaheb Bhosale, who was the son of late Maharashtra chief minister Babasaheb Bhosale apart from being a judge. The chief ministers were requested to give their opinions on April 30 2016. Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao submitted his view in a month whereas his Andhra counterpart Naidu took 11 months. Naidu’s objections were identical to that of Ramanna. But that apart, Justice Ajit Shah has good reason to feel aggrieved because he was very keen to be elevated to the Supreme Court. But the late CJI Sarosh Kapadia was reportedly against his elevation. After he was superceded, he did not hesitate to ventilate his “hurt feelings” to the electronic media although he chastised litigants who went to the media. There are different standards for judges and litigants.
The judge has never minced words after he retired. Like many others, he pointed out that judicial independence should not mean judges were not accountable for their misdeeds which came to the fore when the 45th CJI Ranjan Gogoi heard a matter concerning judicial independence in the absence of the woman who accused him of sexual harassment. She was sacked from the Supreme Court for not reporting to work for a half day and protesting her seating arrangement—very minor faults. She was also refused a lawyer when asked to appear before three apex court judges to substantiate her complaint. Justice Shah questioned the need for the registrar general of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Employees Union to declare her complaint was false without a trial or any judicial finding.
Reiterating what is already known, the judge said chief justices (like Ranjan Gogoi) could not be above the law and future incidents of this sort should be dealt with differently. There should be a permanent disciplinary committee of judges set up and if it finds there is substance in some complaints, it should refer the matter to a three-judge committee set up under the Judges Inquiry Act but if it was a minor misdemeanor, the errant judge could be given a warning.
The fact that some judges are close to politicians was an open secret but judges and lawyers shied away from speaking about this. Former CJI P Sathasivam accepted a gubernatorial post in Kerala after retirement which was widely seen as a climbdown from the post of CJI. He was accused of attending the wedding of BJP chief Amit Shah’s son in Delhi—although he did so after demitting the office of the CJO.
What is not known is that when a lawyer is recommended for judgeship, his file is sent to the chief minister who forwards his comments to the Union law minister with a report from the Intelligence Bureau. The law minister sends his comments to the Supreme Court collegium which then sends it back to the law minister who forwards it to the Prime Minister for his final approval. As law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has iterated, the Modi government wants its say on who will become a judge. This was why the government sat on the files of two judges, KM Joseph and Akhil Qureshi.
Joseph lost his seniority when he was elevated to the apex court after the collegium reiterated his name a second time whereas a writ petition challenging why Qureshi who is presently a Bombay High Court judge, was not sworn in as the chief justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court was heard by the Supreme Court.
Significantly, both judges belong to minority communities. Joseph had struck down President’s rule in Uttarakhand when he was the chief justice of that High Court whereas the Gujarat lawyers had gone on strike protesting against Akhil Qureshi not being sworn in as the chief justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
The Centre had cleared all other names recommended by the apex court collegium on May 10 but not Justice Qureshi’s file. Justices RV Ramasubramanian, RS Chauhan and DN Patel were later appointed as chief justices of the Himachal, Telangana and Delhi High Courts, respectively—after Qureshi’s recommendation.
Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju has openly written that he did not recommend a deserving lawyer who was courteous and learned in the law for judgeship only because he was in a live-in relationship with a woman lawyer. “If I had cleared the file, the chief minister would have blocked it,” said Katju.
The writer holds a Ph.D in law and is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay High Court.