In what raises questions of propriety and process, Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court Justice Dinesh Maheshwari has this month started an enquiry on a complaint directly forwarded to him by the Union Law Ministry against P Krishna Bhat, Principal District and Sessions Judge. Bhat had been cleared for elevation to the Karnataka High Court by the Supreme Court Collegium in April 2017.
Bhat’s name was first proposed by the Karnataka High Court on February 10, 2016 and the Supreme Court Collegium recommended his name for appointment to the High Court on August 23, 2016.
Bhat’s appointment was, however, stalled after a complaint was received by the then Chief Justice of India T S Thakur in June 2016 from a Principal Civil Judge in Hassan district, who alleged “atrocities and abuse of power” by Bhat against her.
The then Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Justice S K Mukherjee wrote to the Chief Justice of India on November 14, 2016, stating that the allegations levelled against Bhat were “incorrect and concocted”. And that the “complainant was making such baseless allegations only to malign” Bhat.
On April 6, 2017, Bhat’s name was reiterated by the Supreme Court Collegium to the Law Ministry.
However, in December last year, the complainant sent a fresh petition against Bhat to the government alleging that he had “managed” her earlier complaint.
As per norms, the Law Ministry does not communicate directly with the high courts for any complaints after the Supreme Court Collegium has recommended a name for elevation to the High Court.
But in this case it did, and Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra was not informed of the complaint which was directly forwarded to the Karnataka High Court by the Ministry.
Sources said that Justice Maheshwari, who took over as Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court last month, started proceedings against Bhat on his own without first referring the case to CJI Dipak Misra.
In a six-page letter sent last week, Justice Maheshwari told the CJI that he had opened an enquiry against Bhat on a complaint directly forwarded by the Law Ministry.
As per the judgment in the Second Judges Case, in case the Supreme Court collegium reiterates a name, it is incumbent upon the Law Ministry to issue warrants for appointment of the concerned person.
Despite the Supreme Court collegium’s reiteration of Bhat’s name, the law ministry has not issued a warrant for his appointment to Karnataka High Court so far. Pending his appointment, the collegium has also not made any fresh appointments to the Karnataka High Court, besides making only additional judges in the high court permanent.
Sources said the CJI had taken a strong view of the case which allegedly violates established procedure for appointment of judges to the high courts.
The matter is likely to be discussed in the next meeting of the Supreme Court collegium.
Incidentally, CJI Misra was part of the three-member Supreme Court collegium which reiterated Bhat’s name to the law ministry.
The collegium was then headed by CJI J S Khehar who had himself been the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court and had observed Bhat when he served as Khehar’s Registrar General.
The complaint against Bhat was made by another judicial officer from Karnataka who had been indicted in an inquiry conducted by Bhat on the orders of the Karnataka High Court.
The judicial officer, against whom the local bar association had levelled allegations of corruption, had been transferred out of the district where she was serving. She had initially resigned from her post, before withdrawing her resignation and filing a complaint against Bhat.
Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was not available for comment.