Stating that Calcutta High Court Judge C S Karnan had “committed contempt of court”, the Supreme Court on Tuesday sentenced him to jail for six months and ordered that he should be taken into custody “forthwith”. This is the first time that a sitting high court judge has been sent to jail on charges of contempt. The seven-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India J S Khehar also barred the media from publishing or reporting the orders passed by Karnan. “We are of the unanimous opinion that Justice C S Karnan has committed contempt of this court, of the judiciary and also the judicial process,” said CJI Khehar. The other judges on the bench are Justices Dipak Misra, J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, M B Lokur, P C Ghose and Kurian Joseph.
With the court asking the West Bengal Director General of Police to implement the order “forthwith”, Karnan, who is due to retire in the second week of June, is set to spend the last month of his tenure and five months thereafter in jail.
Appearing for the Registrar General of the Madras High Court, senior counsel K K Venugopal requested that Karnan be allowed to serve the sentence after he retires, as sending a sitting judge to jail would be a blot on judicial history. But the court said that “contempt is contempt. It has no colour. Whether you are a common man or a judge, it does not matter.’’
“If we do not send him to jail, there will be a blemish that Supreme Court has condoned the contempt committed by a judge,” the bench said.
The Supreme Court’s order came a day after Karnan “sentenced” CJI Khehar and seven other Supreme Court judges — Justices Dipak Misra, J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, M B Lokur, P C Ghose, Kurian Joseph and R Banumathi — to five years rigorous imprisonment, after holding them guilty under the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
While the first six judges are part of the seven-judge bench which initiated contempt proceedings against Karnan earlier this year, after he sought a probe against 20 “corrupt judges”, Justice Banumathi was part of a two-judge bench, with CJI Khehar, which passed an order restraining him from performing judicial and administrative work.
Elevated to the Madras High Court in March 2009, Karnan first hit the headlines when he approached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in 2011, accusing his brother judges of discriminating against him because he was a Dalit.
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In 2014, he walked into a court room where a Supreme Court division bench was hearing a PIL on names recommended for the post of judges, and complained that the selection was “not fair”. The court slammed his conduct and termed it “uncharitable” and “indecorous”.
The then Madras High Court Chief Justice R K Agarwal urged the then CJI P Sathasivam to transfer Karnan to some other court. Karnan then approached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes again.
A year later, he landed in a fresh row after he suo motu stayed the order of the then Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on selection of civil judges. The Supreme Court had to step in and stay his action.
In February last year, Karnan stayed the then CJI T S Thakur’s order transferring him to Calcutta High Court. He also went public with his criticism of the apex court and alleged that he was being targeted because he was a Dalit. Karnan also sent letters to the President, Prime Minister and Congress president among others.
The Madras High Court Registrar General asked the Supreme Court to restrain Karnan from taking suo motu action. The apex court responded by staying all administrative and judicial orders passed by the judge after the date on which he was recommended for transfer. The Supreme Court left it to the Madras HC Chief Justice to decide whether or not to assign any work to Karnan.
In January this year, Karnan went public with a list of 20 “corrupt” sitting and former High Court and Supreme Court judges. The Supreme Court bench headed by CJI Khehar summoned Karnan to explain why he should not face contempt of court proceedings.
Appearing for the Centre, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had termed Karnan’s charges as “disparaging and scurrilous” and asked the court to “set an example” to “make citizens aware that the Supreme Court will not hesitate to take action against anyone who brings administration of justice to disrepute even if the person is a high court judge.’’
Karnan appeared before the Supreme Court and demanded restoration of his judicial work, but the court refused to entertain his plea.
Last month, Karnan ordered registration of cases under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against CJI Khehar and six other judges for allegedly discriminating against him for being a Dalit.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered a medical test on Karnan to ascertain whether he was mentally sound. Karnan refused to undergo the medical test.