SUPREME Court judge Justice Jasti Chelameswar’s unprecedented letter to Chief Justice of India T S Thakur that he won’t attend collegium meetings and was concerned over its lack of transparency has become an important intervention in the government versus judiciary debate.
Weeks before he wrote that letter, though, The Indian Express has confirmed, Justice Chelameswar sat through a meeting of the SC collegium which decided to defer a decision on the transfer of a judge who had practised law with Justice Chelameswar’s son.
Justice Chelameswar is a member of the larger collegium comprising the CJI and the next four senior judges.
Sources have told The Indian Express that the collegium that day, among other things, was to take a call on the request of Kerala High Court Judge Dama Seshadri Naidu to be transferred back to his home state Andhra Pradesh. Sources said a member of the collegium pointed out that Justice Naidu, before he became a judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in September 2013, had practised law with Justice Chelameswar’s lawyer-son in Hyderabad.
Justice Chelameswar then recused himself from the collegium meeting but did not leave the room — as is the practice in such a situation — following which a decision on the issue was kept pending.
The Indian Express spoke to two judges who were members of the collegium when Justice Naidu, who is also related to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu through marriage, was elevated from the Bar to the Bench. They confirmed that it had been decided while appointing him that, in the interest of justice, he would be transferred out of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Among the reasons given for this decision was the fact that he had professional links with Justice Chelameswar’s son and his relationship with Chief Minister Naidu.
Justice Naidu was transferred to Kerala nine months later in June, 2014. Now he has requested to be moved back to Andhra Pradesh.
It is learnt that no final decision has been taken on Justice Naidu’s request for transfer and the matter has been kept pending for a later date.
When contacted, Justice Chelameswar declined to comment. But a source close to him acknowledged that his son and Justice Naidu had practised law together before Justice Naidu’s elevation. The source also said that the fact that Justice Naidu’s transfer request was to be decided at that collegium meeting was known to Justice Chelameswar.
“How could he not know that? It was in the agenda notes. But you should know that the Judge had declared his link with Justice Naidu three years ago when the matter of his elevation to the Bench of ther Andhra Pradesh High Court came up in the Supreme Court. There is nothing new in that,” the source said.
Speaking on his behalf, the source said that Justice Chelameswar had recused himself from the collegium meeting when the matter of Justice Naidu’s request to be transferred back was taken up.
Asked why he didn’t leave the meeting room, the source asserted that since the collegium meeting was to continue even after the issue of Justice Naidu’s transfer request had been dealt with. “Why wasn’t it (transfer request) turned down? Why has it been only kept pending for a later date?” asked the source.
“But the billion-dollar question that you should ask is why was Justice Naidu transferred to Kerala High Court in the first place. There are so many sons and daughters and close relatives of so many sitting judges who are even staying in the same official residence and practising in the same high courts. Why aren’t they transferred out?” the source asked.
Contacted over phone, Justice Naidu said: “My transfer is not an issue I can discuss with somebody.”
Incidentally, Justice Chelameswar was also the lone judge who last year had ruled in favour of doing away with the collegium system. The remaining judges had, through a majority judgment, struck down as unconstitutional an amendment to validate the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act.
In his letter to Chief Justice T S Thakur, Justice Chelameswar said that he would not attend future meetings of the collegium. And that the recommendations of the other four judges, including those of the CJI, should come to him “by circulation”.