There were sparks in the Supreme Court as a blame game between the judiciary and the executive over delay in sending recommendations and appointing judges to high courts came out in the open.
Attorney-general K.K. Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, faced the court's heat for what it called delay of up to three months in clearing appointment of judges recommended by the collegium.
Venugopal's attempt to put the blame on the collegium for recommending just a handful of names for high courts, that are functioning with just 60 per cent of their sanctioned strength, backfired on him.
"Tell us, how many names (recommended by the Collegium) are pending with you," a bench comprising Justices Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta asked Venugopal.
When the A-G said, "I will have to find out", the bench retorted, "This is the problem with you (Centre). When it comes to attacking judiciary, you have the data. But when it comes to the government then you say you don't have the figures."
Justice Lokur said "non-recommendation did not give the Centre the liberty to sit over names that have been sent to it long back. We want to know as to how many collegium proposals are pending with the government."
The top court's remarks assume significance as the Centre, after almost three months of Collegium's recommendation, returned for reconsideration the file of Uttarakhand high court Chief Justice K.M. Joseph for elevation as a Supreme Court judge.
The exchange of words between the bench and government's top law officer took place when the court took up a transfer petition filed by a resident of Manipur.
The petitioner who lost a case before a single judge bench in Manipur has approached the top court to allow him to challenge the order against him before the Guwahati high court.
The petitioner claimed that he could not file an appeal in Manipur HC because there are only two judges there, one of whom had delivered the judgment against him. There is no full-time chief justice in Manipur too when he filed the petition.
The A-G informed the bench that the SC collegium had on April 19 sent recommendation for appointment of Manipur chief justice. "I spoke with the government authorities and they have promised the appointment would be notified shortly," he said.
Justice Lokur asked the A-G, "In Meghalaya, there is only one judge against four. Even Tripura has just two against four. The recommendation was also made for Meghalaya. What happened to that? People of Northeast are suffering. What are they supposed to do?
Should they approach Supreme Court to get their cases transferred to other high courts and spend money to hire lawyers there?"
The A-G then blamed the collegium for not making enough recommendations. "We may appoint one more judge in Meghalaya. But that does not resolve the problem. Collegium has to look at the future. Recommendations need to be made keeping in mind vacancies that will arise six months later," he told the judges.
Venugopal cited figures to point out that high courts have 40 per cent vacancies. "Recommendation is the only way to fill them up. Collegium does not send us the names and the government is told it is being tardy in processing," he said.
Justice Lokur told the A-G the court did not wish to go into the larger picture. "We cannot tell the collegium what to do. Also, here we are concerned only with the Northeast. You file an affidavit to tell us how much time will you take to make the appointments in Northeast. File an affidavit in the next ten days," the court told the A-G.