Former CJI says he couldn’t have known about Justice Karnan

On March 10, a seven-judge Constitution Bench of the apex court invoked the possibility of arresting a sitting high court judge

Written by Utkarsh Anand | New Delhi | Published:March 16, 2017 2:34 am

Former Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan asked “how could I know about him” when asked about clearing C S Karnan’s name for appointment as a high court judge in 2009 as the head of the collegium in the Supreme Court. Speaking to The Indian Express in the backdrop of a bailable warrant issued against Calcutta High Court judge Karnan in connection with a contempt case, Justice Balakrishnan rued that the collegium had no mechanism to independently check the background of a person and it usually went with the recommendation made by the Chief Justice of the high court concerned.

“There was no way I could have known about Justice Karnan. We have no such mechanism (in the Supreme Court). We get recommendations from the high court concerned. Chief justices propose the names and we go by that. I did not make any specific inquiry about him (Karnan),”said Justice Balakrishnan, countering that he could be held “personally responsible” for appointing such a judge.

On March 10, a seven-judge Constitution Bench of the apex court invoked the possibility of arresting a sitting high court judge — a first in Indian legal history — as it issued a bailable warrant against Justice Karnan for failing to show up in court to respond to a contempt notice. The bench, led by the current Chief Justice of India J S Khehar, asked the West Bengal Police chief to serve the warrant on the judge and ensure his presence on March 31.

The contempt notice had gone to the judge with a specific direction to appear in person and explain his contemptuous conduct of writing letters, levelling allegations of corruption against several sitting and retired apex court and high court judges. Hours after the order was issued, Justice Karnan told the media in Kolkata that the seven judges were out to “ruin his life” through orders which were “arbitrary” and “without any authority”.

Alleging that he was “being targeted for being a Dalit”, Justice Karnan said the Constitution clearly underlined that the Supreme Court was neither a master nor a high court its servant. Former Chief Justice of India Balakrishnan refused to comment on the case as the matter is sub-judice.  Justice Karnan was appointed as a judge in Madras High Court in 2009 after the collegium led by then CJI Balakrishnan had cleared his name and sent it to the government for making the appointment.  Within a year of his appointment, Justice Karnan was elevated as a permanent judge.

Justice Balakrishnan, however, said it was then Chief Justice of Madras High Court, A K Ganguly, who had recommended his name for elevation. “In my three years as the CJI, I made almost 300 appointments. I cannot be expected to know personally about each and every candidate who is recommended by chief justices of high courts,” he said.  The former CJI said it was not possible for the collegium in the Supreme Court to scrutinise background of the candidates and that they relied on reports forwarded to them by the high court concerned.

Asked about any in-house mechanism to check aberrations, he said it must be made clear first that “high courts are not under supervisory jurisdiction of the Supreme Court”. However, Justice Balakrishnan added that the CJI and senior judges in the apex court unofficially do speak to the Chief Justices of high court when exigencies, such as off-the-wall conduct of a judge, arises.

“But I must tell you that it is the primary responsibility of the chief justice of that high court to ensure that judges are not unbecoming of their stature. The CJI and other senior judges do advise at certain times but it can never be an administrative direction since high courts, in that sense, are independent and not subordinate to the Supreme Court,” he said.

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