The government’s decision to clear the Supreme Court Collegium’s move to elevate Uttarakhand High Court Chief Justice KM Joseph to the apex court is enormously welcome. Ever since Justice Joseph’s name was first proposed for elevation to the SC by the Collegium in January — it was reiterated in July — it had become lodged at the centre of bruising stand-offs: Between the the judiciary and the executive, and within the judiciary.
The government’s unusual delay in first responding to the Collegium’s recommendation, and then its unprecedented decision in April to segregate and return for reconsideration Justice Joseph’s appointment after sitting on it for more than three months, could not be explained away by its invocation of the so-called seniority or diversity norms in appointments to the higher judiciary. The question, the worry, that was stoked was real and pressing: Was Justice Joseph being punished for his ruling, in 2016, to quash the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, and to restore Congress rule in the state? Even as the government delayed and segregated, senior judges raised questions, that became public, over what they saw as Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra’s unwillingness or inability to stand up and put his foot down on a matter that involved the independence of the judiciary.
By clearing Justice Joseph’s name now, the government has sent out a reassuring signal that the tensions that have mounted between and within crucial institutions, especially in the last few months, will not be allowed to grow. But it will take more sustained bridge-building to close the chasms that have been opened up to public view since January. That was when four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference to air their concern that all is not well with the functioning of the court at a time when executive interference is allegedly growing.
It will require more outreach by the government to assuage the anxieties expressed by senior judges in letters written to the CJI and other judges since, be it (now retired) Justice J Chelameswar in March flagging the government’s stalling of another elevation — of a judicial officer to the Karnataka HC — despite the Collegium’s reiteration of his candidature, or Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Madan Lokur subsequently in April calling for a “full court” to discuss its “future”.
Given this past turbulence, the government will be watched carefully for the role it plays — or doesn’t play — in the future in the next big transition in the Supreme Court, from CJI Misra to his successor. Hopefully, the spirit of constitutionalism that seems to have informed its clearing of Justice Joseph’s appointment now, and a mindfulness of what is at stake, will hold and guide its hand.