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The shocking case of Justice Karnan and others before him reiterates the need to evolve a mechanism that makes those who preside over our courts accountable

~By Sujit Bhar

Justice Karnan is not the first judge in India to have been disciplined by the internal mechanism of the Indian judicial system. Even in his case, it took a long time to bring proceedings against him and he has now been stripped of his duties, though has also been given a reprieve of three weeks. Judges are clearly reluctant to act against their own since it lowers the image of the judiciary as a whole.

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Within the judiciary and legal community, stories abound of corruption, nepotism and favouritism However, over the last 70 odd years, only a handful of judges have been taken to task.

  • Justice V Ramaswami of the Supreme Court was the first judge against whom impeachment proceedings were initiated. He was charged with excessive expenditure on his official residence during his tenure as the Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court. That impeachment process failed to go through parliament, owing mainly to the caste factor. He was a Dalit, and often discrimination becomes a convenient excuse to brush things under the collective carpet.
  • Soumitra Sen of Calcutta High Court was impeached in 2011. Before Justice Sen’s appointment as a judge, he was a practising lawyer of the court. In 1983, the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) filed a suit against the Shipping Corporation of India, asking for an inventory of fire bricks lying at Bokaro Steel Plant (imported and then rejected by SAIL) and to sell them. Sen was appointed Receiver by the court and instead of his five percent fee, Sen was found to have defalcated funds that were not his. The CJI constituted an in-house committee, which accused Justice Sen of breach of trust and misappropriation of Receiver’s funds for personal gain. He was asked to pay up. Justice Sen paid the entire money and then went on leave. When his leave expired, no more judicial work was allotted to him.
  • Chief Justice Dinakaran of Sikkim High Court resigned when impeachment proceedings were initiated against him for disproportionate assets. This case was also diluted by caste factor (like Ramaswami and Justice Karnan, he too was a Dalit).
  • In 2015, a three-judge committee probed allegations of sexual harassment levelled by a former additional district and sessions judge of Gwalior against Justice Gangele of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The lady judge had complained that Justice Gangele had sent her a message through the district court registrar to “perform dance on an item song” at a function at his residence. In 2014, she resigned her post, saying this was the only way she could protect her “dignity, womanhood and self-esteem.” The probe committee found “insufficient” material to pin down the allegation. The dead end reached by the probe committee did not go down well with the executive and 58 MPs submitted a petition seeking impeachment of the judge. Finally, a three-member panel was set up by Vice-President Hamid Ansari.
  • In June 2002, Punjab and Haryana High Court Chief Justice Arun B Saharya stripped three corrupt judges in his court of their duties, creating a precedent of administrative action for misconduct. Credible allegations against the judges—Justices Amarbir Singh Gill, ML Singhal and Mehtab Singh Gill—were that they were part of Punjab Public Service Commission (PPSC) chief Ravi Inder Pal Singh Sidhu’s jobs-for-cash scam. In a massive act, Sidhu had manipulated mark-sheets after exam papers were leaned to help Justice Gill’s daughter Amol and Justice Singhal’s daughter Sapna to gain government jobs.

These cases are, in fact, rare and expose a situation where judicial procedures often fall short in prescribing punishment to one of their own. It was probably inconceivable at the time of the inking of the constitution that it would have to deal with high court and even Supreme Court judges without involving the Executive branch which, in any case, is fraught with political, religious and other petty biases. Last year, the Madras High Court hit out at the corruption within the subordinate judiciary. At least eight judges face the music for charges ranging from inefficiency to corruption. Those disciplined included Melur judicial magistrate KV Mahendra Boopathy (suspended) as well as another district judge (also suspended) and five district judge cadre officers. Final action is awaited.

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A comprehensive bill to oversee the conduct of judges and quick action against offenders is clearly needed. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010, goes some way towards resolving the issue of errant judges. It attempts to lay down enforceable standards of conduct for judges and requires them to declare details of assets, including of their family members. The bill was introduced in parliament after being stalled for a long time and now, a committee has dem-anded some changes.

It does, however, provide a critical set of instruments that can be drawn upon to discipline judges who have refused to abide by internal rulings, while providing a way out in the shortcomings in the constitution as has been seen in the Justice Karnan case.

The act will also allow the judiciary to keep an appropriate distance from the executive. Several instances of clashes with the executive have left the judiciary wary of confrontation and an instrument of this nature will allow it to maintain its distinct nature.

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  • The bill requires judges to declare their assets, lays down judicial standards, and establishes processes for removal of judges of the Supreme Court and high courts.
  • It establishes the National Judicial Oversight Committee, the Complaints Scrutiny Panel and an investigation committee. Any person can make a complaint against a judge to the Oversight Committee on grounds of “misbehaviour”.
  • A motion for removal of a judge on grounds of misbehaviour can also be moved in parliament. Such a motion will be referred for further inquiry to the Oversight Committee.
  • Complaints and inquiries against judges will be confidential and frivolous complaints will be penalised.

There are questions about some aspects of this proposed bill, the most questionable being the fact that the Scrutiny Panel has judges from the same high court. Moreover, it is not clear whether the power of the Oversight Committee to impose minor measures is constitutionally valid.

There are other minor quibbles but there is a larger issue involved. There is no question that the judiciary needs to get rid of the black sheep, and there are many, far more than the ones who have been acted against. Again, it comes down to the question of the judiciary’s main weakness—a tendency to bury its head in the sand when one of their own steps out of line.

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