An in-house inquiry instituted by the Chief Justice of India in 2016 against two sitting judges of the Orissa High Court has completed its proceedings. The report will be submitted to the CJI soon. The Indian Express recalls the case.
What was this inquiry about?
In September 2016, RTI activist Jayanta Kumar Das made allegations of abuse of power and position against two sitting judges of the Orissa High Court, Justice Indrajit Mahanty and Justice Sangam Kumar Sahoo. The then Chief Justice of India, Justice T S Thakur, ordered an inquiry by an in-house committee headed by Justice S J Vazifdar, Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and also comprising Justice T Vaiphei, Chief Justice of the Tripura High Court, and Justice S Abdul Nazeer, then a judge of the Karnataka High Court. After Justice Nazeer’s elevation to the Supreme Court in February 2017, Justice Arun Tandon of the Allahabad High Court was appointed to the committee.
What were the allegations against the two judges?
As per the complaint, Justice Mahanty, the second most senior judge of the High Court, obtained a loan of Rs 2.5 crore from the State Bank of India for his hotel, ‘Triple C’, in Cuttack, in 2009, after he was elevated to the Bench. Justice Mahanty was alleged to have built five storeys when he had permission to construct only three stories. Justice Mahanty is also alleged to have passed orders to allow the employment of women in bars and restaurants while allegedly owning a bar that employed women — a case of alleged conflict of interest.
By running a hotel business that he set up after becoming a judge of the Orissa High Court, Justice Mahanty had violated the Code of Conduct for a Judge, adopted by the full Supreme Court in May 1997, it was alleged. Called “Restatement of Values of Judicial Life”, Para 13 of the Code says: “A Judge shall not engage directly or indirectly in trade or business either by himself or in association with any other person. (Publication of a legal treatise or any activity in the nature of a hobby shall not be construed as a trade or business).”
Justice Sahoo, who was appointed as a judge of the High Court in July 2014, was alleged to have misused public funds for the renovation of his official residence, beyond his entitlement, when he was as an Additional Judge.
Why has the inquiry taken so long?
Besides the elevation of one of the members of the original inquiry committee, the in-house panel was forced to halt its proceedings in June 2017 after the name of a senior Supreme Court Justice cropped up in the course of the probe. The committee decided to seek guidance in writing from the then CJI, Justice J S Khehar. The committee wrote to the CJI, underlining that it did not have the authority to probe a judge of the Supreme Court.
The then CJI did not reply to the committee’s letter, nor did he order an in-house inquiry by three Supreme Court judges to probe the allegations against the then senior Supreme Court judge. Following another letter from the complainant in October 2017, by which time Justice Dipak Misra had taken over as Chief Justice of India, the Justice Vazifdar Committee resumed its proceedings against the two Orissa High Court judges.
What happens if an inquiry indicts a High Court judge?
In such a situation, the CJI can advise the concerned HC judge to resign, whereafter the judge loses his immunity from prosecution. If the judge declines, the CJI can recommend to the President to initiate the process of impeachment for his removal. In certain cases where the evidence is overwhelming, however, the CJI can grant sanction to prosecuting agencies to proceed against a judge without having to resort to either process.
In 2008, then CJI K G Balakrishnan recommended the impeachment of Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court. In 2011, Justice Sen became the first judge in independent India to be impeached by Rajya Sabha. He resigned before Lok Sabha could take up the motion for his impeachment.