In another development in the stalled elevation of a judicial officer to the Karnataka High Court, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote last week to Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra stating that the earlier inquiry clearing the judicial officer did not follow the Vishaka guidelines on sexual harassment.
The Law Minister’s note followed a letter from Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court Justice Dinesh Maheshwari to the CJI late last month, saying that another inquiry, by the high court’s administrative committee, had cleared the judicial officer of all charges after accepting his reply.
The elevation of judicial officer P Krishna Bhat to the Karnataka High Court has been stalled by the government despite the Supreme Court Collegium clearing it. A series of letters have been exchanged between the Law Ministry, CJI Misra, Justice J Chelameswar and Justice Maheshwari on the matter, in what raises questions over the independence of the higher judiciary in appointing judges to high courts.
The two new letters, from the Karnataka Chief Justice and the Law Minister to the CJI, are likely to add to the brewing tension between the government and judiciary.
The government is also sitting over recommendations made by the Collegium for elevation of Justice K M Joseph and advocate Indu Malhotra to the Supreme Court.
Bhat’s name was first recommended for elevation to the Karnataka High Court by the Supreme Court Collegium in August 2016, but stalled following a complaint by a woman judicial officer. In October and November 2016, the then chief justice of the Karnataka High Court, Justice S K Mukherjee, informed the CJI that his inquiry had found the allegations against Bhat “incorrect and concocted”. Subsequently, in April 2017, Bhat’s name was reiterated by the Collegium.
As per the judgment in the Second Judges Case, in case the Collegium reiterates a name, it is incumbent upon the Law Ministry to issue warrants for appointment of that person to the high court. However, instead of issuing the warrant for Bhat’s appointment, late last year, the ministry directly wrote to the Karnataka High Court, saying it had received a fresh complaint from the woman judicial officer that Bhat had “managed” her earlier complaint.
In March, the current Karnataka High Court Chief Justice, Dinesh Maheshwari, opened the pending inquiry against Bhat, without informing the CJI.
Objecting to the government directly communicating with the high court instead of informing the Collegium, Justice Chelameswar, a Collegium member, wrote a strong letter to the CJI and all judges of the apex court. He asked for a meeting of the full court on the judicial side in the Supreme Court to discuss the government’s “interference” in appointment of judges to the high court.
Sources told The Indian Express that the Law Minister’s letter to the CJI last week was a thinly veiled response to Justice Chelameswar’s charges in his last letter. The minister’s note, sources said, highlighted the fact that the 2016 enquiry against Bhat, which had cleared him of all the charges, did not follow Vishaka guidelines applicable in the case of allegations of sexual harassment. As per the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court, complaints of sexual harassment should have been referred to the sexual harassment committee of the high court.
Sources in the Karnataka High Court, however, said the woman judicial officer had not approached the sexual harassment committee of the high court and her case was considered by the Administrative Committee No. 1 of the court. Administrative Committee No. 1 comprises five judges of the high court, including the Chief Justice.
After Justice Maheshwari reopened the enquiry on March 4, Bhat was given 15 days by the committee to file his reply. Bhat’s reply was considered by the committee in a meeting at Justice Maheshwari’s residence at 9 pm on March 20, where the two cases against him were closed and the allegations dismissed. Justice Maheshwari wrote to the CJI on March 23 informing him of the closure of inquiry against Bhat, appending the minutes of the meeting.
The minutes record that the complaint by the woman judicial officer alleges “atrocities and abuse of power on a lady officer during the period from 04.12.2013 to 19.05.2015”. The woman officer has alleged that on three specific instances — February 2014, April 2014 and August 2014 — she was summoned by Bhat after 10 pm at night. She said she refused the fourth time she was summoned late at night, reportedly in October 2014, and that after this she was discriminated against on her orderly entitlement.
As per the minutes of the administrative committee, the woman made the complaint after Bhat had submitted a report to the High Court on her conduct as his subordinate at Belagavi, leading to filing of a vigilance case against her in February 2016. In April 2016, the woman judicial officer resigned, but withdrew it in June 2016. Three days before withdrawing her resignation, she made the complaints of “harassment” against Bhat, to the CJI and Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court.