The government on Friday said the Supreme Court’s decision to quash the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) was “a setback for parliamentary sovereignty”, even as it sought time to study the 1,030-page verdict for a “structured response”.
“While holding very dearly the principle of independence of judiciary, I regret to say that parliamentary sovereignty has received a setback today… Questions have been raised on parliamentary sovereignty,” said Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at a press conference at the BJP headquarters.
He said the government would decide its future strategy after study the verdict in detail and holding consultations. Prasad had piloted the NJAC Bill in Parliament during his term as law minister.
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Describing the earlier unanimity in Parliament in favour of the NJAC Bill as “a unique moment”, Prasad sought to flag several points. He said the legislation was supported by 26 parties — all national and prominent regional outfits. The Lok Sabha had passed the Bill unanimously, while only Ram Jethmalani had dissented and staged a walkout in the Rajya Sabha. Prasad also pointed out that it was ratified by 20 state legislatures.
He said Justice J S Verma — the principal author of the 1993 Supreme Court verdict, which led to the creation of the collegium system — had also suggested a “rethink” while observing that the collegium system had been “misunderstood and misused”. The minister added that the NJAC was part of the judicial reforms which had been undertaken following recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission and three reports of parliamentary standing committees, besides retired judges and jurists.
The minister pointed out that the SC said it would hear the issue of improving the collegium system from November 3. “It shows that there was something wrong in the collegium system,” said Prasad. He maintained that even the old system, which was in place before the collegium system, had produced outstanding judges. He wondered whether the system of “judges appointing judges is the only way for ensuring judicial independence.”
In a more guarded response, Law Minister D V Sadananda Gowda said in Bengaluru: “We are surprised by the Supreme Court verdict… It is premature to comment because I have not seen the full text of the verdict.” He also cited the support of both Houses of Parliament for the NJAC Act, adding that it “had the support of people.”
“The collective wisdom of Parliament reflects the will of people,” said Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Urban Development M Venkaiah Naidu.
Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who argued on behalf of the government in the SC, said: “Appointments will continue to be made in an opaque system where all stakeholders will not have a voice. The collegium system is not found in the Constitution and, according to me, the system is not appropriate.”
However, he ruled out the option of seeking a review. “I don’t think it is a case for review at all as the verdict is detailed and runs into over a thousand pages.”
Then it was pointed out that the apex court had posted the matter for further hearing, inviting suggestions for improving the collegium system, Rohtagi said: “Whether the collegium system will be changed or not is in the wisdom of the court, but if it needs to be improved, it means it wasn’t correct in the first place.”
Asked if the SC verdict was a setback for the Centre, the A-G said: “This law was not of the Centre. It was made by Parliament and approved by all parties.”