In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor (Legal Affairs) Maneesh Chhibber, Law Commission of India Chairman Justice A P Shah says most judges don’t believe the collegium system works and argues for a fixed tenure for CJI. This Idea Exchange took place before Parliament approved the new Bill for selection of judges
Maneesh Chhibber: Law Commission Chairperson Justice A P Shah submitted a report to the government on the collegium system. Incidentally, he is also one of the prominent victims of the collegium system.
Justice A P Shah: I read Fali Nariman’s article in The Indian Express. It seems he has suggested that the collegium system should be revamped. In my opinion, the collegium system is not a democratic institution; there are no checks and balances in it. If you let the same system continue without any meaningful voice to the executing civil society, even if you make it a little more transparent and a criterion is laid out, it may not improve the system itself.
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I have been working on it for the past several days along with some of my colleagues and some people from outside. The government has not asked us to make a report, it is our initiative. At the Law Commission, we thought it’s a very important policy decision — whether you are going to have a judicial appointments commission to replace the present collegium system. It’s the Law Commission’s responsibility to make recommendations in that direction, but it’s not very clear whether it should go as a report or a consultation paper…
You will recall that there was a UPA Bill to bring the retirement age of high court judges on a par with that of the Supreme Court judges. The BJP opposed the Bill, and it is still pending. The only reason given in the Constituent Assembly debates was that high court judges may not opt for the Supreme Court if the retirement age is the same, because that is a kind of temptation to go to the Supreme Court, there is an additional three-year tenure, which I don’t think works today. There are two distinct advantages if it is brought on a par. First, the practice of lobbying and sycophancy, developed in recent times, will stop. Also, there will not be much heartburn because a person continues as an HC judge till 65. The second advantage is that you will be able to select judges at a young age. There is no rule but an unwritten convention that a person below the age of 45 will not be appointed in the HC, and a person below 55 will not be appointed in the SC. Look at the consequences: We are not getting good talent in the HC because once they cross 45, they would be more entrenched in practice. This seniority should really go.
Today, the Supreme Court is packed with (former high court) chief justices who are also the senior-most; there is no search for good talent. Once it is on a par, perhaps you would be able to select judges at a young age and they will continue on the bench for a longer period of time. In almost all countries, judges at the apex court have a long tenure — 10 years is the minimum, it should be 10-15 years. According to me, this (age bar) is rather arbitrary and in the committee meeting, everybody was almost unanimous that seniority should not be the criterion, you need to bring in young people.
And the last point is the fixed tenure of the chief justice. We are working on that. Till 2022, no chief justice will get a tenure of more than a year; the present Chief Justice gets only four-five months. My logic is that it should be five years, because the prime minister gets a five-year tenure, Parliament gets five years, so the chief justice should also get five years. But it may be less — three or two years.
The way the Supreme Court works is very different from what was contemplated by the law framers. One of the reasons there is no embargo against judges taking up post-retirement assignments in the government was because in the Constituent Assembly Dr B R Ambedkar had said that the government has only 5 per cent litigation, and since the government is not a major litigant, why prevent retired judges from accepting post-retirement assignments? That logic is no longer relevant because 60 per cent of the litigations are by the government. So, there may not be a complete bar, but a cooling-off period is very necessary. It could be one or two years, but there should be a cooling-off period.
Maneesh Chhibber: Don’t you think that the government or politicians are trying to use this clamour against the judiciary as an excuse to undo the collegium system brought in by the Supreme Court?
The UPA Bill (which was not passed) said that the Judicial Appointments Commission should have three judges and three non-judges, but there was an attempt to have an amendment, to have a seventh member. And the seventh member, as per the amendment, was to be a non-judge. So virtually, judges will be in a minority. One suggestion was that there should be two non-judges and an eminent person should be given a veto. If both of them decide to oppose the appointment, then it should not be made. There is a fear (that this is a move to undo the collegium system), and I can’t say no to that.
Arun sukumar: Would the situation be any different if the collegium decisions were to be made public under RTI?
Under RTI, the questions that come up relate to justification for making an appointment or if somebody is being overlooked, or why a particular candidate was chosen for the high court. But the reasons are not given. So how is RTI going to help? RTI’s objective is to bring transparency, but RTI itself is not sufficient. Transparency would come only if you make it known that there are vacancies, you get nominations from the stakeholders concerned, have mandatory consultations with the high courts, state governments and maybe the Bar, and then declare the names before they are finalised, so that people know. I’m not in favour of interviews in public or any such American system, but we must bring in some sort of transparency, and that can’t be achieved by an RTI application.
Maneesh Chhibber: At the meeting which the government called to discuss the Judicial Appointments Commission, one of the biggest concerns was that whatever was brought in, the JAC should meet the standard set by the judiciary. What do you think is that standard?
Upendra Baxi suggested that you prepare a Bill and make a presidential reference to the Supreme Court. Let the Supreme Court examine it, the way it has done in the past. This was a good idea according to me, but it was felt, and may be justifiably, that it takes time. The other was what Nariman suggested. I really liked the idea — have a dialogue, let the judiciary participate in that dialogue. That’s a great idea — let them at least listen to voices of people or other stakeholders. My fear is that if the judiciary is either equal or in a minority, this Bill will become (legally) vulnerable.
Dilip Bobb: You have been consulting colleagues in the judiciary. What is their reaction to your suggestions, including the cooling-off period?
The problem is that most judges — till they are in the collegium — defend the collegium system because it is very difficult for a serving judge (to criticise it). Nobody honestly believes that this system works well. Many retired judges, barring the exception of former chief justice (Altamas) Kabir and a few others, believe that this system has not worked.
About cooling-off period, what is bad about post-retirement assignments is that for one post, there are 10 aspirants. This leads to unfortunate developments.
Seema Chishti: You were talking of an eminent person being selected. Isn’t that problematic?
The problem is manifold. First, the Constitution uses the words ‘distinguished jurist’. Not a single person was appointed in the past 60 years in that category. During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, they gave the example of Felix Frankfurter. He was a great professor and was taken from a university to the American Supreme Court; he was not a practising lawyer. What they really had in mind was an academic. If I look at the Indian scenario, Prof N R Madhava Menon or Prof Upendra Baxi would have been brought to the Supreme Court in that category. But that jurist can be anyone. Nariman has contributed greatly in the legal frame, he has written several books, perhaps in that sense he would know.
The absence of a non-legal person would give a sense of incompleteness; it should not be a closed-door affair for the legal community, there should be an eminent person, for instance, our past president A P J Abdul Kalam. There are many such eminent persons, who can be picked by the PM, Leader of Opposition and the Chief Justice of India.
Vandita Mishra: The debate is also about the executive versus the judiciary, which is an age-old tussle. Do you see the present as a special moment where there is a confrontation developing between the executive and the judiciary? Is the judiciary more on the backfoot and the executive more aggressive than in the past?
The real issue is, who will have the last word, who will be the custodian of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has said that the court will have the last word in any amendment. But then coming to narrower issues of appointments, who will have the last word? Judges say that judiciary will have the last word.
Vandita Mishra: The executive is more aggressive because of its majority. What about the judiciary, what is the special moment that the judiciary finds itself in today?
Very broadly, the judiciary is entering into several areas where it should not be. There is a tremendous expanse of the judiciary’s powers and then with the PILs, it is armed with so many weapons. It is becoming very powerful. With that, the scrutiny is becoming extremely focused by the media and several other bodies. One significant development was the decision of the collegium on Karnataka judges.
Rakesh Sinha: As the law minister in A B Vajpayee’s government, Arun Jaitley had moved an amendment for scrapping the collegium.
You are right. There were seven-eight proposals after 1993. And they gave different combinations. In some proposals, even the legislature was included, apart from the executive. In some proposals, it was completely judge-dominant. We are looking into all the proposals.
Maneesh Chhibber: At the meeting called by the government, one got the feeling that the general consensus was that the government should come up with a proposal, have at least one more round of talks with the stakeholders. But it appears the Cabinet is going to clear the Bill.
I distinctly remember Anil Diwan saying that, ‘Instead of holding such meetings, why don’t you draft a Bill and then come to us?’. That is a good idea.
Seema Chishti: Regarding the recent instance of the Delhi Assembly case being heard by the Constitution bench, should the court get into this at all? In an earlier instance, the court had said that the Jharkhand Assembly should have a session at 11.30 am.
I don’t want to make any comment on that. The argument being made is that it is clear the Delhi government is not going to be constituted (any time soon). But the Constitution gives power to the executive that the suspension can continue up to one year. To what extent is judicial review permissible is a debatable issue.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: We had Iqbal Chagla as our guest in Mumbai and he said that in the ’60s and ’70s, the Bar used to be very strong. At times it took up issues of corruption and stalled appointments. Do you think that today, there is nothing that the Bar stands up for?
A recent example is P D Dinakaran’s case — the Bar took up that case. I have seen lawyers acting as some sort of vigilance on wrong appointments. But their number is on the decline. The Bar should be more alert.
Vandita Mishra: What is your view on the mechanism of fast-track courts (for legislators)?
Let me tell you about the Law Commission’s report. The Commission felt that several previous committees disqualified a person if he was facing a serious criminal charge, punishable with five or more years in jail. The debate is, how can you expel a person when he is merely facing a charge; there is no determination. And there is misuse of this provision. Criminalisation of politics is a very serious issue. So if you believe that lawbreakers should not be lawmakers, then we need to have a system where we keep such people out. We went by the reasoning of the Supreme Court judgment in the CVC case that it is protecting institutional integrity.
There is a difference between filing a chargesheet and framing of a charge. We suggested three safeguards.
First, the charge should be framed at least one year prior to the elections. Second, such disqualification should not continue beyond six years. If within six years a person’s case is not decided, he or she should be allowed (to continue). Then we realised what happens if the charge is framed within one year and the person gets elected. Or what happens if the charge is framed after he is elected. In that context, we decided that the case should be decided within one year.
Vandita Mishra: So legislators should be singled out for fast-track, time-bound trial.
It should be done. That’s a deterrent.
Vandita Mishra: But some people would say that rapists should be singled out, not legislators.
In the case of rapists, it is already happening.
Aneesha Mathur: In your recent report you have mentioned fast-tracking, but you have also said that there may be a trade-off between the quality and quantity of judgments.
Most judges write bad judgments. It should be properly administered justice and in the name of fast-tracking you should not be affecting the quality.
Rakesh Sinha: A lower court judge in Madhya Pradesh recently wrote to the Chief Justice of India saying a high court judge was exploiting her and that she was forced to resign.
It is a very serious complaint and if it is found true prima facie on inquiry, then the logical step would be to withdraw the judicial person, and initiate impeachment proceedings.
Transcribed by Vandana Kalra & Debesh Banerjee