The Indian Supreme Court has found itself in a veritable quagmire, with the Indian judiciary having become a mockery of itself. Petty quarrels among Supreme Court judges have spilled over into the public space and the Indian public has seemingly lost faith in the power of justice. Corruption has crept into the bowels of the judicial structure, making it nigh impossible for people to be accorded their fair due.
Stories of criminals getting away Scot-free and of wrongful convictions are a dime a dozen nowadays. Adding to that is the news of the endless wrangling between the Centre and Chief Justice over the appointment of new Supreme Court judges as well as the sordid revelations of insubordination in the structure, which have further managed to drag the name of the elevated institution through the mud. Indeed, it is no overstatement that the Supreme Court is at crossroads. Unless changes are instituted immediately, people may very well be forced to boycott it.
Scandals that have rocked the Supreme Court in the recent past
APPOINTMENT OF JUDGES: CENTRAL GOVERNMENT VERSUS SUPREME COURT COLLEGIUM
Since the very beginning, the executive and the judiciary have been at loggerheads over the suitability of judicial appointments. While some governments have resisted the urge to mould the Supreme Court into workings as their pawns, others have made ardent attempts to install judges who curry favour with them.
For this reason, it has been mandated that Chief Justice’s views on the matter will carry primacy rather than the government’s. Additionally, the judges will be selected by a collegium comprising a number of the most senior judges and headed by the Chief Justice. The Centre can ask the collegium to reconsider their decision but if reiterated, the collegium’s resolution stands as final and indisputable.
One of the most prominent cases of dissension took place in 2018 over the appointment of Indu Malhotra to the apex court. The Supreme Court collegium had chosen Justice Kurien M. Joseph and intimated their decision to the government. They proposed his name due to his seniority among the other High Court judges and Chief Justices.
However, this decision was overridden by the government which ultimately appointed Indu Malhotra to the post. They claimed that Joseph was not the most senior of all the judges, and eleven other judges outranked him on the list. Furthermore, since there already was one Keralite judge serving on the Supreme Court bench, Joseph’s appointment would skew the regional balance.
However, the justifications behind Kurien Joseph’s rejection seem specious. Judges are supposed to be appointed on the basis of their appropriateness for the post, not age. Moreover, attention was drawn to the fact that there were five judges from the Bombay High Court and three from the Delhi Court serving in the Supreme Court, and so the problem of regional imbalance is moot.
Indeed, some critiques of the government’s selection pointed that Joseph had shown himself to be independent of any political bias and would probably need to yield to external manipulations. It has been presumed that the delay in his elevation to the apex court was reprisal for his 2016 nullification of a declaration of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, where he was the Chief Justice of the High Court.
More recently, in May 2019, the government and the Supreme Court collegium clashed over the appointment of the Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The collegium had recommended A. A. Kureshi but the Centre disregarded their counsel and nominated Ravi Shankar Jha. The Centre seems to have a particular dislike for Kureshi, as he was overlooked for the Gujarat High Court’s acting chief justice post back in October 2018.
Judge’s press conference – Rifts & Revolts in the higher echelons of the judiciary
In a surprising development in January 2018, four senior judges of the Supreme Court – Justices Kurian Joseph, Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi and Madan Lokur decided to hold a news conference where they proceeded to air out their grievances against the Chief Justice Dipak Misra.
They expressed their dissatisfaction with the distribution of cases, arguing that the junior judges were given more preference in the allocation of sensational cases with a lot of media attention. They also charged him of ignoring their advice on the appointment of judges.
They had made their opinions known to the Chief Justice via a letter two months back but he was yet to respond to it. They then proceeded to release to the press a copy of the letter.
Such a shocking revelation of the differences in opinion within the higher echelons of the top court was unprecedented and unexpected. The judges emphasised that their public address was a last resort measure, undertaken due to the absence of a response from the Chief Justice.
They maintained that they wanted the judiciary to function with integrity and were intent on weeding out the undesirable practices that were making the system ineffective.
However, whatever their intentions, good or bad, they should have had the foresight and discernment to realise that such a public exposure of conflict would open them up to widespread condemnation, especially from political quarters. Indeed, parties had a field day in accusing the government of manoeuvring the judiciary and suppressing dissent.
Additionally, it so followed that part of the judges’ claims were unfounded as Chief Justice Misra had simply followed the convention of the past few years during which fifteen such nationally significant cases had been assigned to the so-called junior judges.
Nonetheless, this episode also raises concerns about the malaise of corruption creeping into the formerly robust judicial framework, which is supposed to remain sequestered from external malevolent influences. The knowledge of this division in the lines is bound to make the public think twice before choosing to repose their faith in a system which itself cannot run with a consensus.
Corruption charges against CJI
Former Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra has an infamous claim to fame – he is the first chief justice against whom a notice of impeachment had been filed. Seven opposition parties led by Congress submitted their proposal to the Rajya Sabha chairman in April 2018, prompted by their misgivings over the judgement in the Justice BH Loya case. They further accused him of abuse of power and succumbing to corrupt external interference.
In fact, Misra has been dogged by corruption charges all through his career. Before he was to become Chief Justice of India, it appeared that he had made fraudulent claims about his assets. This itself should have been seen as a significant red flag but was brushed aside.
Even in early 2017, he had been specifically named by Kalikho Pul in his suicide letter where he accused judges of changing the outcomes of cases by accepting bribes through their sons. No evidence was found to support this extraordinary claim, therefore, he was not prosecuted.
Similarly, other colleagues had also implied that Misra had committed several misdemeanours throughout his tenure; however, nothing was ever confirmed.
Sexual Harassment case against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi
In April 2019, a former Supreme Court staffer accused Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexually misbehaving with her in October 2018 at his residence.
She revealed this in a letter to twenty two judges of the Supreme Court. Gogoi refuted these allegations and called a special weekend hearing to deal with this matter. He appeared to trivialise the matter and said that he did not deem it worthy of merit.
The in-house panel that was constituted to inquire into the allegations declared that they had found nothing to substantiate the accuser’s allegations. They further implied that they had discerned that attempts were being to impugn the reputation of Gogoi, probably with the help of a politico-corporate nexus.
The woman’s charges were dismissed but decided to keep the details of the report under wraps in accordance with the precedent set in the Indira Jaising vs Supreme Court of India & Anr.
Women’s rights activists decried the hurried and somewhat perfunctory nature of the probe. They said that justice had not been rendered in this case and demanded that the issue be investigated anew, in a fair and impartial manner. Concerns were raised over the procedure undertaken to exonerate Gogoi.
As per the Vishakha guidelines, an inquiry panel should have a majority of female members and one external observer, neither of which was followed. Furthermore, the accuser was not allowed to consult her lawyer, nor access her statements. The final committee report was also not handed over to her. Instead, the panel declared that an investigation must be undertaken into the larger conspiracy that Gogoi was being implicated under.
Such a blatantly biased hearing is going to be a major deterrent to other women from speaking up on sexual misconduct. It is disheartening to see that the Supreme Court itself has engaged in what can almost be called a cover-up.
Incidents like these have eroded the Indian populace’s faith in law and order as well as the judiciary. Urgent measures need to be taken to bring in more transparency and reinforce the autonomy of the judiciary.