Justice Jasti Chelameswar, the most senior judge of the Supreme Court, wrote to Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra last week, seeking a full court on the judicial side to discuss the matter of government interference in appointment of judges to high courts. The CJI has not yet responded to the letter.
The five-page letter to the CJI has also been copied to 22 other judges of the Supreme Court. Sources said that this was done to obviate criticism of some Supreme Court judges that they had not been taken into confidence when the four most senior judges — Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph, besides Chelameswar — held a press conference on January 12, complaining that the CJI had taken no action on issues raised in their letter to him.
Justice Chelameswar’s letter, signed on March 21, states that the government has been selective in accepting recommendations of the Supreme Court Collegium for appointment of judges to high courts. It chooses to ignore or defer the names it finds uncomfortable, the letter states, thereby affecting the independence of the judiciary.
The letter goes on to demand a full court on the judicial side to discuss the current situation. A full court meeting of the Supreme Court is usually convened by the CJI when a matter of public importance relating to the administration of the judiciary comes up.
At a time when Opposition parties have started a signature campaign for an impeachment motion against the CJI in Rajya Sabha, the demand for convening a full court is bound to put greater pressure on CJI Misra to be seen as the custodian of the independence of the judiciary.
Comparing the current state of affairs to a similar case of direct interference in judiciary by the central government which led to action by the Supreme Court, Justice Chelameswar concludes the letter by referring to S P Gupta vs President Of India and Ors (1981), commonly known as the First Judges Case.
The Supreme Court judgment had then ruled a circular, issued to all states by the then Law Minister, P Shiv Shankar, as carrying “no legal force in the first place”. Shiv Shankar had asked additional judges in the state’s high court ‘their consent to be appointed permanent judges in any other high court (they might indicate three courts in order of preference) and to obtain from potential judges ‘their consent to be appointed to any other high court in the country’.
Justice Chelameswar’s letter to CJI Misra ostensibly came in response to a letter earlier this month by the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, highlighting that the Law Ministry was writing directly to him. This had stalled the elevation of a district and sessions judge, P Krishna Bhat, to the High Court despite a reiteration by the Supreme Court Collegium. As per the judgment in the Second Judges Case, in case the Supreme Court Collegium reiterates a name, it is incumbent upon the Law Ministry to issue warrants for appointment of the person concerned to the High Court.
The letter refers to Bhat’s case, whose name was first recommended by the Supreme Court Collegium in August 2016. After the then Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court called the allegations made by the Principal Civil Judge against Bhat “incorrect and concocted”, the Supreme Court Collegium had reiterated his name to the Law Ministry in April 2017.
As reported by The Indian Express on March 20, the government did not elevate Bhat to Karnataka High Court. Last December, the Law Ministry directly forwarded a fresh complaint by the same civil judge against Bhat. The current Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Justice Maheshwari, reopened the inquiry against Bhat in February, without first referring the matter to the CJI. He informed CJI Misra about it via a letter dated March 12 which in turn was circulated among other members of the Supreme Court Collegium.
In his letter, Justice Chelameswar also came down heavily on Justice Maheshwari for reopening the enquiry on receiving a complaint from the Law Ministry when his predecessor in 2017 had called the allegations against Bhat “baseless” and “only to malign” him.
It is learnt that the meeting of the Administrative Committee No. 1, which comprises five judges, had given Bhat 15 days to file his reply to the complaint. His reply to the committee was submitted in time. The committee in turn communicated it in a sealed envelope to Justice Maheshwari.