The relationship between “democracy” and “secrecy” has always been debated, and it has been highlighted by the system of judicial appointments. The proposed judicial appointments commission (JAC) seeks to partly answer that question. Under review is the judicial collegium method of appointments, in use since the 1990s (which consists today in the supremacy of five senior-most justices of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice of India), as against the constitutional method in place between the 1950s and the 1990s (where the executive nominated candidates in consultation with the CJI and such other justices as it deemed fit).
Neither method can be said to have failed or succeeded, because the citizen has no way of knowing who the candidates are, how they are selected and why. No empirical study of judicial appointments is possible because the records are not available, and like the electoral nomination of candidates, the right to information does not exist so far as judicial elevations or transfers of high court justices are concerned. Stories in which judges, lawyers, law ministers and journalists tell us about the “system” are abundant, but such anecdotal evidence is hearsay and not ordinarily admissible in a court of law.
In the three judges cases, including a reference for advisory opinion, the court arrogated the power to elevate (and transfer high court) justices through a tortured interpretation of Articles 124 and 217 of the Constitution, by saying that the word “consultation” shall mean the “consent” of the CJI. But a constitutional convention giving primacy to the CJI was already in place — according to the law secretary’s affidavit, only seven out of some 348 recommendations were negatived by the Central government. If the system of executive nomination has worked so well, why the change?
Are the CJIs, in some cases, constrained to approve executive-dominated elevations? Justice Markandey Katju’s recent expose suggests that the CJI is vulnerable to alleged manoeuvring by the prime minister’s office. The justices in the judges cases seemed to think so, given that they accorded primacy first to the CJI, then to two judges and the CJI, and finally to a collegium of five justices.
To its credit, the UPA government introduced nearly half a dozen bills for judicial appointments and transfers, and contemplated a slew of measures on judicial standards, accountability, non-impeachment offences and transparency of the judicial process. The new government is espousing the cause; it clearly disfavours the political bravado that inspired a Union law minister to say that he had justices in his pockets; this is no longer the signature tune of modern governance. Rather, the state now wants a JAC that continued…