The Madras Bar Association on Sunday passed a resolution urging the Supreme Court collegium to reconsider its recommendation to transfer Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee, which it said was “perceived to be punitive”.
“The association is deeply concerned with the opaqueness surrounding the transfers of Hon’ble Mr Justice T S Sivagnanam from Madras High Court to Calcutta and of Hon’ble Mr Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee to Meghalaya. The transfers are perceived to be in violation of Memorandum of Procedure for transfer. Such transfers are perceived to be punitive and does not augur well for the independence of the judiciary,” the resolution, passed in an emergency session of the association, said.
On November 9, the Supreme Court collegium headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana made public that it had recommended the transfer of Justice Banerjee at a meeting held on 16 September.
In that same meeting, the collegium had also recommended the transfer of Justice Sivagnanam, the second seniormost judge of the Madras High Court, to the Calcutta High Court.
The government notified Justice Sivagnanam’s transfer on October 11. As and when Chief Justice Banerjee’s transfer to Meghalaya High Court is notified, Justice M N Bhandari, who is currently a judge of the Allahabad High Court but who has been recommended by the collegium for a transfer to Madras High Court, will become the seniormost judge of the Madras High Court. By convention, the seniormost judge in a High Court takes over as Acting Chief Justice until an appointment is made.
Separately, at least 31 senior advocates of Madras High Court including Arvind Datar, P S Raman, V Prakash, Nalini Chidambaram, and Satish Parasaran have written a letter requesting CJI Ramana and the collegium to reconsider the transfer of Justice Banerjee.
The letter says that Justice Banerjee has spent less than a year in his position, and has “discharged his functions both in administrative and judicial side to the best of his capabilities bringing honour to the office he held”.
He has been a “good administrator” who disposed of thousands of cases even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the senior counsel wrote in their letter. They were “unable to fathom the reasons for his sudden transfer to another court”, they said.
Justice Banerjee took charge as Chief Justice of Madras HC on January 4 this year. He is due to retire on November 1, 2023, as per Law Ministry records.
According to the letter, the Supreme Court has said in its judgments that such transfers were needed to protect and further the “public interest”, and for “better administration of justice”. However, they were unable to “identify any easily discernible reason that could lend credence to the justification that this transfer has been necessitated in public interest or for the better administration of justice”, the counsel said.
Seeking the logic behind transferring Justice Banerjee to the “smaller” Meghalaya HC, the senior advocates reminded the collegium that “these constant transfers and postings have left the Madras HC in a state of constant flux”.
“Such short-lived tenures at the apex of the court’s hierarchy in a state bodes ill for the health of the institution and the justice delivery system,” the letter said. “It is advisable that a CJ has a two year term in at least the larger HCs like Madras HC in order to enable them to make worthwhile contributions to the improvement and development of the institution,” it said.
As Chief Justice of Madras HC, Justice Banerjee stayed the provisions of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, on the ground that it could “rob the media, both print and electronic, of their independence and the democratic principles”.
In March, a bench led by Justice Banerjee took serious note of a plea alleging the Puducherry unit of the BJP had accessed voters’ phone numbers linked to their Aadhaar, and directed the Election Commission to file a report on the steps taken by it to prevent such acts.
Justice Banerjee had also come down heavily on the Election Commission during the second wave of the pandemic for not taking adequate precautions during the state polls.
His observation that Commission officials must be “booked for murder” made the poll panel move the SC. While the SC observed that HCs must be cautious in censuring officials, it refused to intervene in the matter.
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