Katju’s expose: Major judicial reforms on the anvil?

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Justice KG Balakrishnan.
The controversy stirred by former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, chairman of Press Council of India, on his allegations that three ex-Chief Justices of India had compromised in giving extension to an additional judge of Madras High court at the instance of UPA-I, isn't going to die soon. This episode has exposed the political interference into the matters of judiciary, an issue which was often gossiped about but hardly came into light.

Several political parties, especially the AIADMK, are demanding a probe into the matter and charging DMK and the erstwhile UPA government with "interfering" in the appointment of judge.

What is the case?

Katju, in an explosive blogpost, had accused a SC collegium, comprising three ex-CJIs, of giving undue favours and extension to a corrupt Tamil Nadu judge in 2005 at the behest of the Congress-led UPA government, which succumbed under pressure from an ally, apparently the DMK.

Katju named the three CJIs but refrained from naming the ‘corrupt' judge who was found guilty by an Intelligence Bureau (IB) probe. Katju alleged how Justices RC Lahoti, YK Sabharwal and KG Balakrishnan made ‘improper compromises' in allowing the judge, against whom there were several allegations of corruption, to continue in office.

Know about the three underfire ex-CJIs:

After retiring from office the CJIs are barred from practicing law in the country. They remain virtually inactive post retirement. They are appointed as panelists, jurists of government agencies/commissions on legal matters and provide their recommendations to the government in crucial matters. Similarly, the three above mentioned judges are either retired or are working in such government agencies.

RC Lahoti: Ramesh Chandra Lahoti served as the 35th Chief Justice of India from June 1, 2004 to November 1, 2005. He retired on his 65th birthday after completing a term of 18 months. Justice Lahoti was involved in several allegations during his tenure. Contrary to his predecessors, who were expressing concern over increasing corruption in the judiciary, justice Lahoti, in November 2004, proclaimed that the judiciary in India was 'clean'. His handling of judicial transfer of Chief Justice BK Roy from the Punjab and Haryana High Court to the Guwahati High Court also attracted controversy.

YK Sabharwal: Yogesh Kumar Sabharwal succeed Justice Lahoti as the 36th CJI and served for a period of about 14 months as he would turn 65, the retirement age for Chief Justices, on January 14, 2007. He was the former NHRC chairperson. Sabharwal's term was too mired with controversies. There were allegations against Sabharwal for bringing undue favours for his sons' real estate firms during his tenure. As per a series of articles published by Mid-Day his sons' firms attracted the interest of the very largest players in the shopping mall industry when Sabharwal was in office. Business of his sons' expanded dramatically during his term as CJI.

KG Balakrishnan: Konakuppakatil Gopinathan Balakrishnan is the current chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India. He served as the 37th Chief Justice of India and retired in May 2010. His tenure lasting more than three years has been one of the longest in Supreme Court's history. Balakrishnan, has been alleged in the public suit that his two sons-in-law and brother amassed wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income when he was in the Supreme Court from 2007 to 2010. The income tax department has confirmed that at least three of his relatives had held a large amount of black money, says an NDTV report.

PMO's complicit role in the matter:

As per a report published in TOI, the PMO on June 17, 2005 wrote a terse note titled 'appointment of permanent judges in the Madras HC' to the department of justice, after the collegium unanimously decided not to continue with the services of Justice S Ashok Kumar (the alleged ‘corrupt' judges according to justice Katju) after he completed the two-year period as additional judge in Madras HC. The PMO's letter thus led to a series of events which saw the judge getting an extension against the wishes of the collegium.

The correspondence between the PMO, the then Law minister and Justice Lahoti in the possession of TOI undercuts the claim by the then Law Minister HR Bhardwaj that the decision to give an extension to Justice Kumar was solely that of the collegium, with the government having nothing to do with that. It also shows that Justice Lahoti resisted the push for the judge before finally giving in.

The PMO note which began it all said, "The Prime Minister has directed that clarifications be sought by the Ministry of Law and Justice as to why the names of Justice S Ashok Kumar and Justice NR Kannadasan have not been recommended. The proposal be resubmitted (to the collegium) with the clarification."

The report further says, the then Law Minister HR Bhardwaj ensured that a note, on the lines desired by the PM, was sent to then CJI Lahoti on July 16, 2005 through the joint secretary in department of justice. This put Justice Lahoti in considerable embarrassment given the unanimity of the collegium on Justice Kumar.

This report validates Katju's charges that the UPA-I Government pressurized the collegium to reconsider its recommendations and include Justice Ashok Kumar's name in the list for giving extension.

What is the new Government's stand?

This episode has given an opportunity to the new government, treading cautiously on this issue but is in no mood to give Congress leadership a breather, push for the Judicial Appointments Commission bill.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Lok Sabha on Tuesday that the dispensation is considering improving the system of appointment of judges of higher judiciary.

Adding that the government is ‘quite keen' to appoint a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), Prasad said, "The concern raised by AIADMK members was well appreciated and there is an imperative need to improve the system of judges' appointment."

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