There is now a consensus amongst judges, lawyers and legislators that the present system of appointment of judges to superior courts by a collegium of Supreme Court judges requires to be changed for a better one. There are sound reasons for this move.
First, the appointment of judges by the Supreme Court collegium has no foundation in our Constitution. Article 124 of the Constitution provides that every judge of the Supreme Court is to be appointed by the president after consultation with the chief justice of the Supreme Court and other judges of the Supreme Court and high courts. Similar power is given by Article 217 to the president in consultation with the chief justice of India (CJI), the governor of the state and chief justice of the high court for the appointment of judges to high courts.
In 1981, in what is known as the first judges’ case, the Supreme Court held that the power of appointment of judges of the superior courts resided solely and exclusively in the president, that is, the Central government, subject to full and effective consultation with the constitutional functionaries referred to in Articles 124 and 217. However, in 1992, the Supreme Court, in the second judges’ case, professing to safeguard the independence of the judiciary, reversed the first verdict and rewrote the constitutional provisions to hold that the primacy in the appointment of a judge of the Supreme Court was with the CJI, who would make his recommendation to the president after consultation with two of his senior judges. The president would only have the limited power of expressing his doubts on the recommendation of the CJI. The president’s doubts would not however prevail if the CJI reiterated his recommendation on the appointment of the judge. In a later judgment, known as the third judges’ case, the Supreme Court diluted the primacy of the CJI, and gave the power of appointment to a collegium of the CJI and four of his senior-most colleagues.
The judgments in the second and third judges’ cases are an extraordinary tour de force in the name of securing the independence of the judiciary. The court has rewritten the provisions of the Constitution for the appointment of judges. The executive’s function in the appointment process has for all practical purposes been eliminated and reduced to the formal approving of a recommendation made by the CJI and his collegium. “Consultation” with the CJI in the Constitution has been transmuted into an original power to appoint by the CJI and a collegium. The Constituent Assembly’s view at the time of enacting the constitutional provisions, that the CJI should not be the final appointing authority, was disregarded by the court. In no jurisdiction in the world do judges appoint judges.
Even if the collegium’s method for the appointment of judges has no foundation in the Constitution, it could have been excused had the system worked satisfactorily, but unfortunately, for over 20 years, it has not. In the first instance, the collegium system lacks transparency and is secretive. The public is not aware of the selection of a judge until his name is forwarded to the government by the collegium. Second, there have been instances of judges being selected or not selected due to favouritism or prejudice of members of the collegium. Third, selection on competitive merit of the appointees is discarded and judges are generally appointed to the Supreme Court on their seniority in ranking in the high courts. The late Justice J.S. Verma, principal author of the second judges’ judgment, later admitted that the collegium system had failed.
Should the earlier system of the exective appointing judges after proper consultation be restored? Paradoxically, from 1950 to 1973, some of the most outstanding judges of our Supreme Court were appointed through this system. Eminent judges like Michael Kirby of the Australian High Court are strongly in favour of restoring the old system, with control over it by Parliament. It was only during the period of the Emergency that this system was subverted, which led to the judiciary appropriating the power in the second judges’ case. Even today, in Australia and Canada, it is the executive that appoints judges after proper consultation.
To introduce a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) in India is a fundamental change in the Constitution. Such a change requires careful consideration and evaluation of the system. It is important to know that, except for the judicial appointment commission of the UK introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005, such commissions have not been successful elsewhere. The South African constitution provides for a judicial appointment commission, but its working is far from satisfactory and at times appointments have been influenced by the government. The same is true of judicial appointment commissions in other states in Africa.
If the JAC is to be introduced in India, its composition should be made part of the Constitution itself and not left to ordinary legislation by Parliament. There should be proper representation of members, including of the legal profession, in the JAC. The JAC will be over-stressed and overworked if it has to make appointments for 31 judges to the Supreme Court and over 800 judges to the 24 high courts. The CJI and two senior-most judges, who are to be part of the commission, would have to work in the commission to the neglect of their primary judicial duties of hearing and deciding cases. There ought to be two separate judicial commissions, therefore, one for the Supreme Court and the other for the high courts. The JAC for high courts ought to
be composed of retired judges of the Supreme Court or high courts, in addition to other members. In the UK, there are separate selecting bodies for high court and for supreme court. The overriding factor will be the merit of the candidate, but the commission, as in the UK, should consider diversity, namely, appointment of women judges and judges of various regions without of course sacrificing merit.
Overall, the creation of a JAC requires careful consideration and extensive consultation with all sections of the public, including the CJI. The present law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, rightly convened a meeting on July 28 of judges and lawyers and jurists to discuss the changes to be made. It is to be hoped that such consultations will be continued before a legislation is introduced. The collegium system has not worked, but we should not have a situation where we jump from the frying pan of the collegium to the burning fire of a chaotic National Judicial Commission.
The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court and former Solicitor General of India