The law on impeachment of judges
On Monday, 75 members of the Rajya Sabha submitted a signed motion for impeachment of controversial Karnataka High Court Chief Justice P D Dinakaran. Maneesh Chhibber takes a look at what the process entails:
What is impeachment?
A member of the higher judiciary, which means the Judges and Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of India and the state High Courts, can be removed from service only through the process of impeachment under Article 124 (4) of the Constitution on grounds of proven misbehaviour or incapacity. In India, there is no other process by which a Judge can be removed from office before his term comes to an end. However, the process is very cumbersome.
Who decides if a Judge should be impeached?
As per the Judges Inquiry Act, 1968, a complaint against a Judge has to be made through a resolution either by 100 members of the Lok Sabha or 50 Rajya Sabha members. After the MPs submit a duly signed motion to this effect to their respective presiding officers — Chairman of the Rajya Sabha or Speaker of the Lok Sabha — the presiding officer constitutes a three-member committee comprising two Judges — one from the Supreme Court and one Chief Justice of a High Court if the complaint is against a HC Judge; and two Supreme Court Judges if the complaint is against a sitting Judge of the apex court — and a jurist to probe the complaint and determine if it is a case fit for initiating the process of impeachment.
This team can involve any independent agency, either from the government or the private sector, to investigate the charges, before making a recommendation to the House. Thereafter, if the committee has concluded that impeachment proceedings be launched, the matter is debated in both Houses of Parliament. The Judge who is facing impeachment is also given the opportunity to rebut the charges, either in person or through his representative. However, the entire process — debate onwards — has to be completed within a single session of the House, failing which the motion is deemed dropped and can only be taken up if the entire process is repeated afresh in any subsequent session.
What is the majority needed to pass the impeachment motion?
After the debate ends and the Judge has been heard, if the House decides to put the motion to vote, the resolution has to be passed by two-thirds majority in both Houses in the same session. The resolution is then sent to the President, who orders removal of the Judge.
Has any Judge ever been impeached since Independence?
None till date. The only time, Parliament came close to impeaching a Judge was in the case of former Punjab and Haryana High Court Chief Justice V Ramaswami for corruption in 1991. However, the move failed as the then Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi asked all Congress MPs to abstain from voting, thus defeating the motion.
Last year, 58 MPs of the Rajya Sabha moved a motion for impeachment of Calcutta High Court Judge Soumitra Sen for his involvement in financial misappropriation before he was appointed as a Judge. The matter is pending before a three-member committee constituted by the Rajya Sabha Chairman.
On Monday, 75 MPs of the Rajya Sabha submitted a signed motion for impeachment of controversial Karnataka High Court Chief Justice P D Dinakaran on 12 counts. Once the signatures are verified, the matter will be referred to a committee to be constituted by the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Among other things, Dinakaran is accused of encroaching upon government and village common land, amassing assets much beyond his known sources of income and causing loss to the exchequer.
Is there any other way to punish errant Judges?
No. In most cases, transfer is the only course of action followed by the Supreme Court collegium if it feels that the offence of the Judge is not so grave so as to attract the penalty of impeachment. Ironically, in a large number of cases, the highest court of the land has ruled that transfer is no punishment.
Is the government mulling a new law to rein in and punish errant Judges?
Yes, Union Law Minister M Veerappa Moily has already announced on the floor of the Parliament that a new law in this regard could be introduced in the ongoing Session of Parliament itself.