Karma has finally caught up with retired Justice C S Karnan. The former judge who made a mockery of his judicial powers will now spend the next six months in a Kolkata jail unless the Supreme Court decides to grant him some reprieve.
Opinion is divided on the treatment meted out to him – whether he should have been punished at all, whether the Supreme Court was within its powers to send a serving judge to jail, whether a little more caution would have saved the judiciary the embarrassing developments. It also re-ignited debates on the adequacy of the judiciary’s in-house mechanism to deal with errant judges and the limits of the exercise of the contempt power conferred on the judges.
Justice Karnan was only a month away from retirement and a controversy could have been avoided by ignoring his antics for the little remaining time, feel some. The stick was necessary to send a message to possible future contemnors and to convince the public at large that judiciary was not biased when it came to contempt of court by its own officers, say others.
What everyone agrees, however, is on the incalculable damage that the incident has done to the judiciary which with all its shortcomings still remain the only succour for a large majority of the population deprived of their basic rights. The need for protecting the integrity and people’s trust in such an institution need not be overemphasised, which takes us to the question whether the lessons have been learned?
Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s comments at a recent presser held to announce achievements of his ministry in the three years of the Narendra Modi government indicate that it may still be a long and treacherous road ahead.
The Justice Karnan episode was a pointer to the glaring lacuanes in the scheme of selection and appointment of judges of the higher judiciary. The Collegium system put in place by a judicial order in 1993 has been blamed as outdated but the revised format offered by the Government in the form of a National Judicial Appointments Commission was struck down by the Supreme Court in October 2015.
This leaves us with what is known as the Memorandum of Proceedings (MoP), a guide for judicial appointments which the SC has asked the government to draft in consultation with its Collegium. But that was 18 months ago – December 2015 to be precise.
While Chief Justice of India Justice J S Khehar reportedly said in March this year that the MoP had been cleared by the SC Collegium, Prasad was emphatic that there were still differences between the government and the Collegium over some its terms. “On some issues we have reached agreement (with the Collegium),” the minister said but declined to disclose the points on which differences remained. Time is the essence and any more delay in chalking the way forward will only set unhealthy precedents for the future.