Not much has been written by way of scrupulous scientific research about judicial corruptibility, but much has been said about it. Several chief justices of India (CJI), incumbent justices, and superannuated justices have lamented the fact that the widespread systematic governance corruptibility has resulted in discrete acts of judicial corruption.
The narrative basically, even now, remains deeply hierarchical. It is heavily focussed on the district judiciary: Retired CJI V.N. Khare said in an interview that “corruption in lower courts is no secret”, and recommended a team of “dedicated judges” (mostly retired) to monitor and arrest its further spread. The second narrative suggests that the “rot” may have reached some high courts; and the origins of transfer of judges as a national policy lay firmly located in this narrative.
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The third narrative suggests that acts of corruption have reached even the shores of the Supreme Court. Shanti Bhushan (and Prashant Bhushan) created a perfect moral storm in 2010 by naming eight CJI among 16 justices who were allegedly corrupt. He gave the names in a sealed envelope to the Supreme Court and even dared it to prosecute them for contempt! And this narrative was embellished by the irrepressible Justice Markandey Katju, as late as 2015, to morally impeach many justices in “higher courts”.
The trouble with all these narratives is they are many sided. One, the allegation of corruption is rather easily made but is very difficult to substantiate. Trading in suspicion and even slander, is different from establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, allegations are mainly anecdotal and emerge from the Bar grapevine; the Bar’s passion and penchant for telling stories is well known. Gossip of today (as Michel Foucault once remarked) becomes the truth of tomorrow; and grapevine constitutes the rule and often assumes the visage of public truth. Third, “corruption” is hardly conceptualised.
Everybody agrees that judgments, and accompanying interim orders, should not be sold and bought for a price. But other surrounding concepts await deeper analysis. Is “son stroke” (where near relatives of a sitting judge practice in the same jurisdiction) a corrupt act? Do always buying of land and property by close relations of a judge evidence judicial corruption? What if a judge’s spouse is an independent professional or otherwise lucratively employed? Is a membership by incumbent justices of retired justices housing society a corrupt act? Does an informal agreement to head a statutory body or a commission prior, or on the eve of retirement, amount to corruption? Should past association with a firm of lawyers, or an individual counsel, be regarded retrospectively as a potentially corrupt act or at least a ground of judicial transfer? And, how is any appellate justice to be adjudged as performing a corrupt act under the recent NJAC judgment, which suggests Third Schedule (oath of office) obligation not to recuse? How is one to describe the varieties of judicial “misconduct” as different from impeachable offences?
Careful writing will draw some bright lines between corruptibility in general and specific acts of corruption, or folklore of corruptibility and the fact (actual incidence) of judicial corruption. There is thus a distinction between (as philosopher Seyla Benhabib counselled) “generalised” and the “concrete” other. Even as a folklore grows, facts are hard to come by or establish. The folklore matters as an “evidence” of widespread popular belief about judicial governance corruption. The dominant judicial narrative accentuates contempt jurisprudence, lest popular mistrust may grow and generate collective disobedience of court’s orders, and directions. But too frequent activation, or deployment, of contempt powers may also produce a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression and of the media freedom to report.
The constitutional courts in India remain confronted by a democratic dilemma; they have tried to walk a fine balance but the belief in contempt power is so strong that media stories are routinely killed in the apprehension of protracted judicial proceedings. The Supreme Court of India breathes a fresh air when it virtually quashes the contempt action against Transparency International and the Centre of Media Studies. It rightly remarked that such surveys “instead gave opportunity to address the malady in the system”. A bench led by Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar (comprising also Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Sanjay K. Kaul) said the law of contempt would not “ordinarily” extend to interview and compilation concerning corrupt judicial practises (such as bribing and exercising influence). “Where will research go if this is contempt?” asked the Court.
This is welcome relief, but we must, however, note that it came after a 11-year wait! The learned CJI, around the same time, suggested a “mechanism” for taking a “second call” on government litigation. His Lordship estimated thus a 10 per cent case-load reduction. Of course, there is some linkage between the oft-noted judicial governance corruptibility and workload delays, providing a further argument for urgency of judicial appointments and elevation.
Judicial corruption (in the strict sense of buying and selling orders and judgments) is a serious menace to basic individual freedoms. It is also inimical to judicial independence and to the constitutionally desired social order. The constitutional process for the removal of justices need not be politically cumbersome, if a constitutionally sincere approach were to prevail. And this is one constitutional process that may not belong rightfully to the judiciary, lest it prove contrary to the rule of law maxim: No person shall be a judge in her own cause.
Justice K. Ramaswamy said wisely and well, as far back as 1995, that “criticism of a judge’s conduct or of the conduct of a court even if strongly worded, is, however, not contempt,” if it is “fair, temperate and made in good faith and is not directed to the personal character of a judge or to the impartiality of a judge or court”. And we may do no better than to adhere to this constitutional prescription.