The judiciary in India occupies a prime position. In the past, the Supreme Court has successfully managed to provide legal solutions to complicated issues involving socio-political and economic matters that have come up before it. The Judges of the higher judiciary enjoy high degree of independence and constitutional protection for discharging their duties without fear or favour. The judges have to adhere to self restraint of not airing their views through any public platform on any issue which has the possibility of creating controversy.
The Judges of the higher judiciary by and large have maintained high standards of judicial ethics and morality. There are, however, a few exceptions, the black sheep in the system.
Justice Karnan has involved himself in some serious controversies. As a judge of High Court of Madras, he complained to the SC/ST Commission against his colleague judge for allegedly insulting him on caste, based on flimsy grounds. His boisterous protests in the court hall and addressing the media against recommendation of the names for elevation to the Madras High Court was also done in a manner which is not befitting a judge. He further submitted his objections against the recommendations to the president, chief justice of India and the Union government. Justice Karnan is also said to have been discourteous to chief justices and always tried to give a caste angle to all his protests and objections.
The Supreme Court collegium took a liberal attitude towards his wayward conduct and restrained itself from taking any action. When he refused to constrain himself, the collegium transferred him to Calcutta High Court. There too, Justice Karnan flouted all legal barriers, taking charge of the roster jurisdiction not vested in him, registered a case suo motu and, more shockingly, stayed the order of his own transfer. He did tender an apology to the Supreme Court for his conduct and complied with the order of transfer but the story did not end there. He continued issuing reckless complaints of corruption against the Judges of Supreme Court and the Judges of High Court of Madras to the Prime Minister and to the President.
The Supreme Court finally initiated suo motu contempt proceeding against Justice Karnan and demanded his appearance before the Court on February 13. However, he ignored the order. The Supreme Court condoned his absence keeping in view the constitutional post he holds and adjourned the case by three weeks in view of his plea in his written explanation where he asked for more time.
As he has done in the past, Justice Karnan, a Dalit, is clearly trying to spin the entire episode as a caste issue.
The Supreme Court should ideally have ignored the letters written by Justice Karnan to the President and to the Prime Minister for an enquiry into the allegations made against his fellow Judges. He is in any case, due to retire in July, 2017. This would have avoided the unsavoury controversy. The executive authorities, to whom his letters were addressed, could have dealt with the allegations in the complaint.
A section of the public believes that complaints of misconduct or corruption against the higher judiciary are being ignored and no adverse consequences are evident. The Supreme Court has an in-house mechanism to deal with complaints, but that system lacks transparency. Only in selective cases, is the Judge involved transferred. The executive is equally to blame in handling complaints against the judges.
The laxity on the part of judiciary and executive encourages people like Justice Karnan to defy the Supreme Court. His case has clearly shown that the executive needs to play a more pro-active and effective role in conducting enquiries into complaints against judges and initiate prompt legal action as laid down in the constitution. More than anything, the Justice Karnan episode exposes the need to have a law that governs accountability of judges.
The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, which lays down judicial standards and establishes processes for removal of judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, has been pending in Parliament since 2010. It is urgently needed to restore the public image of the judiciary, seriously dented by the actions of one of its own judges.
—The author is former acting chief justice of Gauhati High Court