Next Chief Justice a ‘court employee’ who guards his personal space

H L Dattu takes over as CJI on September 28

Written by Utkarsh Anand | New Delhi | Published:September 7, 2014 2:22 am

Justice Handyala Lakshminarayanaswamy Dattu likes his strong cup of coffee with Kannada music playing in the background. With very few friends and minimal outings, he likes his personal space as it gives him the much-needed break from the pile of case papers to read his books.

Set to become the 42nd Chief Justice of India, Justice Dattu, 63, acknowledges all eyes are already on him as he is hearing some of the most important cases in the Supreme Court. He is adjudicating upon the fate of Delhi assembly, the NDA government’s efforts to bring back black money, monitoring of Gujarat riots cases, row over Ram Setu, 2G spectrum allocation cases and most recently controversies surrounding CBI Director Ranjit Sinha’s visitors’ logbook, among others.

But when one meets Justice Dattu, one gets to hear all sorts of stories from him, except those emanating from the court rooms. Describing former Chief Justice of India S Rajendra Babu as his “guru”, Justice Dattu says he learnt the most important principle of his life from his guru — One has to be good at one’s profession but more importantly, one has to be a good human being.

Proud of being a part of Indian judiciary that he considers to be the best in the world, Justice Dattu, speaking to The Sunday Express, says that remaining grounded and focused on his work is what he treats as the basics of his life. When people ask his daughter about her father’s job, she describes him as an “employee of the Supreme Court”.

The only judge in the apex court who very often addresses lawyers by their first names and keeps the ambience of his court room untailored, Justice Dattu has immense devotion for Lord Ganapati, for he says the god destroys the ego and enables people move on in life with simplicity.

Born in a small village, Chikkapattanagere, in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district, Justice Dattu completed his early education in Kadur, Tarikere and Birur, before moving to Bangalore to pursue higher studies. His father H L Narayanaswamy was an English teacher. He completed his LL.B from Bangalore and started practising since 1975, handling all types of matters — civil, criminal, tax and Constitutional cases.

He appeared in Karnataka High Court as a government pleader and as a senior standing counsel for Income Tax department before being elevated as a judge of the High Court in 1995. In February 2007, Justice Dattu was elevated as the Chief Justice of the Chhattisgarh High Court and shortly afterwards shifted in the same capacity to the Kerala High Court. He was appointed as a Supreme Court judge in December 2008.

After taking over on September 28 as the Chief Justice of India, he will enjoy tenure of a little over one year before he retires on December 2, 2015.

Associated with an array of significant verdicts, Justice Dattu pronounced a landmark verdict in the 2G case when he granted bail to five corporate biggies while ruling that “bail is the rule and jail an exception”. Authoring this verdict along with Justice G S Singhvi on the bench, he said: “The courts owe more than verbal respect to the principle that punishment begins after conviction, and that every man is deemed to be innocent until duly tried and duly found guilty.”

Similarly, upholding the freedom of press, Justice Dattu quashed an Allahabad High Court order, directing the Centre to prohibit media from reporting on the controversial troop movements near the national capital on a day the then Army chief Gen V K Singh had moved court on his date-of-birth row in 2012.

Justice Dattu also headed the bench, which told Gujarat police that no innocent person should be branded a terrorist and put behind bars simply because he belongs to a minority community. Acquitting 11 persons charged under terror laws, the bench had said: Police must ensure that no innocent person has the feeling of sufferance only because “my name is Khan, but I am not a terrorist”.

Justice Dattu was on the bench that expanded the Indian jurisprudence on death sentence cases as the court commuted the death penalty of terror convict Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar to life term over mental illness and an inordinate delay by the government in deciding his mercy plea.

Left in cold storage for quite some time, the black money case hit the headlines again as Justice Dattu started hearing it. Rejecting the UPA government’s plea, he ordered immediate constitution of the special investigation team (SIT), ordered by the court way back in 2011. The SIT is now functional and has submitted its first report in court.

He was on the Constitution bench that declared as “unconstitutional” a law enacted by Kerala to restrict water level in the Mullaperiyar dam to 136 feet, while protecting the legal right of Tamil Nadu. Justice Dattu also heads the bench hearing the CBI’s appeal against dropping of conspiracy charges against top BJP leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case. He also headed the bench that junked a review petition against a previous SC verdict, holding that gay sex was a criminal act. A curative petition is pending against this order.

Judgments: From bail as right to freedom of press

* Bail is the rule and jail an exception
* Freedom of press for reporting
* Don’t brand people from minority community as terrorists
* Black money must be brought back to India
* Death sentence cannot be given in cases of inordinate delay in execution

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