Debates on the collegium system generally start at the wrong place, namely, whether a national judicial commission will be a better alternative. The point at which they ought to start is whether the creation of such a system is constitutionally permissible. Article 124 of the Constitution states that every judge of the Supreme Court shall be appointed by the president in consultation with such of the judges of the Supreme Court, and of the high courts in the states, as the president may deem necessary. It also says that in the case of appointment of a judge other than the chief justice, the chief justice of India (CJI) shall always be consulted.
In the name of the independence of the judiciary, the Supreme Court said in 1993 that primacy in the matter of judicial appointments must lie in the final opinion of the CJI, “unless for very good reasons known to the executive and disclosed to the chief justice of India, that appointment is not considered to be suitable”. To mitigate the violence done to the
plain language of the Constitution and to reassure every one that power did not rest in one individual alone, that is, the CJI, the court created a new constitutional institution, a collegium of the senior-most judges.
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This was not a creative interpretation of the Constitution, as the apologists for the collegium system would have us believe, but a plain rewrite. This was judicial overreach and it was only last year, 20 years later, that serious attempts began to repair the damage to the Constitution.
Having stated my fundamental objection, I will recapitulate my three other objections. First, there must be an element of democratic accountability in the matter of appointments to the higher judiciary, which has the power to strike down laws of Parliament and state legislatures, and even amendments to the Constitution. Second, when judges appoint judges, they look mainly at “technical competence” and seniority. They do not necessarily look at the social philosophies or gender sensitivities of prospective candidates. Third, judges do not pay particular attention to the idea of manpower planning, as is clear from the many short-term appointments of chief justices and short-term appointments to the Supreme Court. In a judge-dominated system, everyone needs to be given a “chance”.
And so, it is about time that we put a better system in place. There is no going back now to the original system of the executive appointing judges in consultation with the judiciary, by invoking the doctrine of “original intent”. Much has changed in the world since we enacted the Constitution. Processes of judicial appointments are far more participatory all over the world. Stakeholders in the justice delivery system are now accorded an important role. Let us look at just two examples.
In Canada, the advisory committee for judicial appointments includes a member of parliament from each recognised party, a retired judge, a nominee of the attorney general, a nominee of the law societies and two prominent Canadians who are neither lawyers nor judges. In South Africa, the Judicial Service Commission includes judges, the minister for justice or his nominee, advocates and solicitors nominated by their respective professional bodies, a professor of law, senators and four nominees of the president of whom two shall be advocates or solicitors.
The judicial appointments commission (JAC) needs to be written into the Constitution itself, not only in terms of its creation but also its composition. It is necessary to make this point because the previous government had originally sought to bring the commission into the Constitution, but left it to Parliament to make an ordinary law to prescribe its membership. This was undesirable. Successive governments would have been free to change its composition according to their will.
Should the JAC be a part-time body? The Union Public Service Commission is not part-time. Surely, appointments to the superior judiciary are not less serious a matter than civil service appointments. But the present collegium, by its very nature, can only meet in the evenings after the judges have finished their arduous courtroom work, and before they start writing their judgments and reading for their cases the next day. To make appointments to the Supreme Court and all the high courts in the country, we need a full-time institution with a permanent secretariat and its own information- gathering wing. And so, the judicial members would have to be former and not sitting judges. Similarly, jurists and eminent citizens will need to be full-time members. The only possible part-time ex officio member could be the law minister.
The national judicial commission will need to devise new methods for attracting talent to the judiciary. The old practice of “asking” and “inviting” must be supplemented by calling for applications from interested candidates (currently, you can apply to become a district judge, but it is bad form to apply to be a high court judge!). Search committees will have to look for the best legal talent, not only from within the court system but also outside. In the current system, non-litigating lawyers don’t ever get considered.
And the question of the “tilting balance” remains. Former judges (most recently, Justice A.P. Shah) take the view that the independence of the judiciary can only be secu red by judges outnumbering the others. I, however, believe that democratic accountability in the process of appointment is equally important and, in principle, judges should be marginally outnumbered.
Finally, since it looks as if we are getting down to business, we need to attend to the removal process as well; it is part of the same Article 124 that is going to be amended. Impeachment involves getting signatures from MPs. On the one hand, it makes it difficult for even genuine complaints to proceed further. On the other hand, it politicises the process. One impeachment failed because the then ruling party abstained from voting, and two others were aborted by midstream resignations (civil servants are not allowed to resign in the middle of disciplinary inquiries; can judges be allowed to do so?). The proposed national judicial commission must therefore be in charge of the removal of judges as well.
The writer is a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court