A case for judicial lockjaw
ARGHYA SENGUPTA IN THE HINDU
Judgments should speak for themselves; when judges justify them in public, they run the risk of sounding like politicians.
Justice Felix Frankfurter, one of America’s most eloquent Supreme Court judges, speaking at an American Law Institute function in 1948, aptly described the infirmity of being unable to speak about one’s judgments publicly, an attendant facet of being a Supreme Court judge, as “judicial lockjaw.” For watchers of the Indian higher judiciary, which has adhered to this principle since its inception, the last fortnight has brought forth a surprising development in this regard. Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, an erudite judge of the Supreme Court of India, who retired recently, has, since leaving office, actively engaged with the media, first in print and then electronically. While a retired judge writing and speaking extra-judicially per se on matters of public importance is a fairly common and welcome phenomenon, his participation in a feisty debate in a leading newspaper on the merits of one of his own judgments, and then agreeing to take part in a television interview whose questions focused solely on two of his controversial judgments, is uncommon. As well as raising questions of individual propriety, it contains possible portents of the slowly changing nature of the Indian higher judiciary.
Justice Ganguly’s rejoinder
Three days after his retirement, Justice Ganguly issued a startling written rejoinder to the criticism by former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee of the 2G judgment, which he had handed down a few days previously. Not only did he defend his judgment, first by assuring Mr. Chatterjee that “the judgment was not delivered either out of temptation or out of any desire to appropriate executive powers” but also positively asserted that “[t]he judgment was rendered in clear discharge of duty by the Court” (The Telegraph, 6 February, 2012). His statements, especially to the extent they clarify and defend his judgment, raise deep questions regarding the proper role of judges in post-retirement public life. This is especially so in Justice Ganguly’s case, as it was followed up with an interview to a private television channel where, despite steadfastly refusing to comment on the merits of the 2G judgment or the judgment relating to sanctions for prosecution per se, his statements on the subject had the effect of giving the interviewer and the viewing public sufficient sound bytes on how the judgments ought to be interpreted. To cite a single instance — in response to a question as to whether the timeline set by the Court for the government to consider sanction requests against public servants should apply to the Chief Justice of India when permission is sought for a FIR to be filed against a judge, though he refused to give a direct answer, he suggested that the recommendations made in the judgment “should apply across the board.” To any reasonable viewer, this statement would certainly come across as a clarification on what the recommendations made in the judgment ought to mean.
It is not the legality of Justice Ganguly’s engagement with the media that is in issue here. Like any other citizen, he has a right to speak, and is free to exercise that right in whichever manner he desires, provided it is within the bounds of constitutional permissibility. But when a retired judge speaks, not in his capacity as an ordinary citizen but wearing the hat of a judge who was party to a particular judgment, as Justice Ganguly obviously did, the primary question is one of propriety. That the judge, after rendering judgment, becomes functus officio and the judgment of the Court speaks through itself, is a long established principle in the Indian judicial system. The rationale for the principle is salutary: that the decision of the Court when it is cited as a precedent in subsequent cases as a binding principle of law, ought to be interpreted on its own terms and not on the basis of any extra-judicial clarifications that may be issued subsequently. Of course, any academic discussion and criticism following the judgment may be relevant, but never involving the judge concerned himself, as that may have an unwarranted overriding influence on future interpretations of the decision. At the same time, the principle does not prohibit judges from writing their memoirs, which are often filled with delightful accounts of the unseen dynamics of a judicial decision, or commenting on the consequences of a case after a period of time or on a matter of significant national importance. However, coming so close on the heels of the judgments being delivered, Justice Ganguly’s statements in the media can neither count as an academic commentary nor be justified by a passage of time having elapsed. Propriety thus demanded that he thought better than articulating his views publicly in this manner.
Judge’s role in public
Equally importantly, Justice Ganguly’s actions point to a larger question as to what the role of a judge should be in public life. Unlike politicians or film stars who are public figures by virtue of their closeness to the people, judges are public figures precisely because they manage to keep their distance from the people. It is this detachment which allows judges to be immune from the passions of popular sentiment and political machinations, thereby facilitating the independence of the judiciary as an institution. Any engagement with the media by a judge in a judicial capacity, whether while holding office or post-retirement, fundamentally erodes the extent of this institutional detachment. Especially if the engagement primarily focuses on decisions given by judges, it runs the risk of turning judges into quasi-politicians, clarifying and justifying their judgments by direct appeals to the public, rather than simply allowing the reasons contained in the judgment to perform this justificatory function.
Indeed a comparative analysis across countries shows the links which can be drawn between extra-judicial utterances and the political savvy of judges. In England, where courts are largely apolitical, extra-judicial utterances are rare. Judges, except the Law Lords, were for a long period, conventionally governed by the Kilmuir Principles, key amongst which is the view that “[s]o long as a Judge keeps silent his reputation for wisdom and impartiality remains unassailable.” Though the Principles themselves are no longer strictly applicable, the tradition of extra-judicial silence continues. On the contrary, across the Atlantic, in the United States of America, whose Supreme Court is an overtly political institution, notwithstanding Justice Frankfurter‘s wise advocacy of restraint, judges have a long history of writing and speaking extra-judicially on their own judgments and on the Court itself — Justice Stewart wrote a letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal defending his majority opinion in a racial discrimination case; Justice Goldberg publicly defended the Court and its stance on judicial review and states’ rights in the New York Times; in fact even Chief Justice Marshall, back in the 19th Century, defended his landmark judgment, authoritatively laying down the nature of American federalism in McCulloch v. Maryland, albeit writing under a cleverly disguised pseudonym in the Philadelphia Union.
Sign of transformation
As this comparative experience demonstrates, the judicial propensity to engage directly with the public is clearly a symptom of a Court whose judges are keenly conscious of the immense political significance their decisions have. In this backdrop, Justice Ganguly’s comments, unwarranted as they may have been, perhaps provide an early sign of the subtle transformation of the Supreme Court of India into an overtly political institution, owning up and reacting to the immense political ramifications of its actions. Equally, they raise deep questions regarding the interaction between judges and the media, arguably two of the most powerful pillars in Indian democracy today. This is a complex, multi-dimensional issue that cannot be dealt with here. However it would suffice to say that the obtuse language used by judicial decisions, their unclear consequences and the difficulties faced by sections of the media in understanding the subtleties of legalese, all suggest that like several courts worldwide such as the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the European Court of Human Rights, the Indian Supreme Court too should issue official media summaries of important decisions. Not only will this facilitate wide comprehensibility of key judgments, but it will also ensure that judicial decisions are not wantonly misinterpreted. Most importantly, it will mean that judges, whether in office or speaking in their judicial capacity immediately post-retirement, will have an additional reason to remain lockjawed, allowing their judgment together with its officially authorised summary to do the talking.
(Arghya Sengupta is a Stipendiary Lecturer in Administrative Law at the University of Oxford and founder of the think tank The Pre-Legislative Briefing Service.)