The Supreme Court Collegium’s controversial decision to transfer Chief Justice of Madras High Court Vijaya K Tahilramani, which prompted her resignation and which has been challenged in a PIL, was based on three “considerations” that raised questions of performance and propriety, The Indian Express has learnt.
These are said to have included: reports of her “short working hours” in the court; the manner in which she “abruptly’ dissolved a bench; her perceived proximity to a senior politician of the state’s ruling party; and her purchase of two properties in Chennai.
On September 6, Justice Tahilramani had resigned from her post when her request to the Collegium to get the transfer order changed was not considered favourably. The President accepted her resignation Saturday and appointed Justice V Kothari as acting Chief Justice.
The Collegium’s decision has come under considerable scrutiny. In an unusual move, the Collegium dedicated an entire resolution on September 12 asserting its case, without disclosing any reasons which may have prompted the decision. Sources said the Collegium arrived at its decision after extensive consultation with three judges of the apex court who are from the Madras High Court.
The principal consideration, it is learnt, was her short working hours in the Court.
“It is a young High Court and the model set by the Chief Justice matters. There were reports that the Chief Justice did not sit beyond noon on most days and this had a bearing on what other Judges did. In one of the busiest High Courts in the country, this had implications,” sources said.
Another consideration, said sources, was the “inexplicable and abrupt dissolving of the bench hearing idol-theft cases” on June 4. This bench was set up by Justice Indira Banerjee, when she was Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. It was this two-Judge bench that quashed a government order transferring all future idol theft cases to the CBI and appointing Pon Manickavel as special officer of the idol wing, set to take charge immediately after his retirement.
It was believed to be “on the verge of wrapping up its work, when it was suddenly dissolved”. The notification issued by the Court at the time had said that the “very few” remaining writs and matters pending would be listed in front of “respective division benches and single benches”.
While this decision raised eyebrows, the Collegium also considered the perceived “proximity with a senior political figure in the ruling party in the state, and the purchase of two apartments in Chennai”.
Of the 58 Judges in the Madras High Court currently, 15 judges have declared their assets online and this list does not include Justice Tahilramani. Repeated attempts to contact Justice Tahilramani did not yield a comment. Her private secretary said, “Since things are settled, she said she doesn’t want to come out with a press statement.” He added: “Moreover, she is out of station now, we could not get her comment on this. If she wants to respond to this, we will get back to you.”
A detailed message mentioning the specific issues related to her transfer was sent to her and her secretary. Neither was available for comment.
On September 19, Madras High Court reserved its order on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which had called for the President of India, to not put his stamp of approval on the Collegium’s decision to transfer Justice Tahilramani, which was issued without furnishing any reasons for its decision.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Advocate R Prabhakaran, who filed the PIL, said that the lack of transparency in the Collegium’s decision led to his petition. “When the Collegium decides to swap the Madras High Court Chief Justice with the Meghalaya High Court Chief Justice, reasons should be in the public domain. According to the Constitution, the decision of the transfer should be taken by the President, not the Collegium, which is actually to be consulted on the President’s decision. Also, there is a precedent that the judge is being asked for consent before he or she is transferred. In Justice Tahilramani’s case, not only that she was not consulted but she was not even given the reason for her transfer,” he said
When asked about the Collegium’s observations, Prabhakaran said: “We do not have a Performance Commission. All these alleged charges against her are unfounded… If they are serious for the Collegium, they should send those files to the government…impeach her.”
He added, “It was the same Collegium comprising the current CJI Ranjan Gogoi that had decided to elevate Justice Tahilramani from Mumbai High Court to Madras High Court last year. What is the point of talking about her poor performance now? Decision of which Collegium went wrong here, the then CJI Dipak Misra’s or current CJI Gogoi?”
Sources said the Collegium wanted to “not speak of all this publicly and hoped that the transfer to a smaller High Court, with lesser work would enable them to resolve the problem without a fuss.”
Justice Tahilramani is one of the senior-most Judges in the country and was elevated to the Bombay High Court as a Judge in 2001, before assuming charge at Madras High Court on August 12, 2018. Her profile on the Madras High Court website lists many “landmark judgments including many in death sentence cases and the Bilkis Bano (Godhra riots case), which was transferred to Maharashtra from Gujarat by the Supreme Court. The Bilkis Bano case was a very voluminous and complicated case. The judgment in Bilkis Bano case ran into almost 400 pages.”