Supreme Court of India
Judges must eschew any suggestion that duties of the judiciary are owed to the electorate; they are owed to the law which is there for peace, order and good governance
S.H. Kapadia , Chief Justice of India at the 6th Setalvad Memorial Lecture in New Delhi
PUBLISHED IN THE TRIBUNE
Leading an exemplary life is the highest form of ethical conduct. This is the keystone of our modern codes of judicial conduct. We need a clean man in the black robe to uphold the independence and the integrity of the judiciary. Action is an extension of values. A Judge’s obligation must start and end with his analysis of law, not with personal beliefs or preferences. The Judge should not accept patronage through which he acquires office, preferential treatment or pre-retirement assignment. These can give rise to corruption if and when quid pro quo makes a demand on such Judges. Similarly, when a family member regularly appears before a Judge, adverse public perception can affect the working of the integrity of institutions like the judiciary.
The active involvement of Judges in community organisations has also evoked a similar response when their civil society associates appear as litigants before them. Frequent socialising with particular members of the legal profession or with the litigants, including potential litigants, is certain to raise, in the minds of others, the suspicion that the Judge is susceptible to undue influence in the discharge of his duties. In such a situation, Judges must keep the part of impartial, objective, fearless and independent justice alive. A Judge must inevitably choose to be a little aloof and isolated from the community at large.
He should not be in contact with lawyers, individuals or political parties, their leaders or ministers except on purely social occasions. When one enters the Judges’ world, one inevitably has to impose upon oneself certain obvious restrictions. Judges owe a solemn duty to the community at large and from day-to-day they must ask themselves whether they have done or said anything which is inconsistent with the oath of office they have taken and which otherwise are consistent with their obligations as a Judge.
One more aspect needs to be highlighted. Internal interference from a high-ranking Judge which, if resisted, could lead the lower-ranking Judge being transferred or being denied promotion also needs to be deprecated. Similarly, political protection should not be given to corrupt Judges.
In drafting “know what to omit rather than what to include”.
Judgements are not to be written as simplified newspaper pieces for public consumption. The process of reasoning in a judgement should reflect its integrity and explain its conclusions. Judges must eschew any suggestion that duties of the judiciary are owed to the electorate; they are owed to the law which is there for peace, order and good governance. The Judges of the Supreme Court of India should revisit the original constitutional proposition that courts do not substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies, who are elected to enact laws. We are not concerned with the wisdom, need or appropriateness of the legislation. We must refuse to sit as a super-legislature to weigh the wisdom of legislation. We must remember that our Constitution recognises separation of powers and that the legislatures and the government can be made accountable for their legislation and actions by the electorate if they err. In many PILs, the courts freely decree rule of conduct for government and public authorities which are akin to legislation. Such exercises have little judicial function in them. Its justification is that the other branches of the government have failed or are indifferent to the solution of the problem.
In such matters, I am of the opinion that the courts should be circumspect in understanding the thin line between law and governance. In such matters, the courts must try to ascertain whether the issue has a legal content or a political content. In the latter case, the courts should invoke the doctrine of deference. The function of the courts is to review the acts of the legislature and not to impose its own policies or values on the society or the legislature.
We do not have the competence to make policy choices and run the administration. Judicial activism which is not grounded on textual commitment to the Constitution or the statute, unlike activism in cases of human rights and life and personal liberty, raises questions of accountability of the judiciary whose members are not chosen by any democratic process and whose members are not answerable to the electorate or to the legislature or to the executive. We, Judges, should remember that the validity of our decisions cannot rest on popularity. Resisting the pressure to please the majority is the strength of the judiciary, not its weakness. Judges who invoke the Constitution to protect the rights of people and who declare a statute unconstitutional are not legislating from the Bench, nor are they thwarting the will of the majority. They are merely carrying out their oath of office and following the rule of law.
In the context of the developing world wherein litigation impinges on the economy or commerce, many Judges are cowed into submission rather than walk the tight rope of balancing the public interest and be tarred with the epitaph of “usurping the legislative function”. Lawyers and the public, apart from criticising, must engage in constructively empowering the judiciary. In conclusion, on this topic, I may add that it is the discipline of circumstances that makes us more worthy. The task of forming and giving opinion, in the course of judging, is based on many activities; resolving disputes, setting precedents, following precedents, deliberating with colleagues, displaying compassion and so on. However, each of these activities raises questions of judicial ethics. This is where the oath which we take binds us.
Separation of powers
Constitutional law is the law prescribing the exercise of power by the organs of a State. It explains which organs can exercise legislative power, executive power and judicial power and what the limitations on those powers are. In a federal State, the allocation of governmental powers (legislative, executive and judicial) among Central and State authorities is a basic concern.
A constitution has been described as “a mirror reflecting the national soul”: it must recognise and protect the values of a nation. The word “constitutionalism” is sometimes used to convey the idea of a government that is limited by law. The phrase “rule of law” is used to convey the same idea. These terms describe a society in which government officials must act in accordance with the law. This in turn requires an independent judiciary and an independent legal profession. Under the doctrine of separation of powers, each of the above organs must stay within the powers allocated by the Constitution. Supremacy of the Constitution is the philosophy of the constitution. Well established rules of interpretation require that the meaning and intention of the Constitution framers must be ascertained from the language of the Constitution itself; with the motives of those who framed it, the court has no concern. At the same time the Constitution is not to be construed in a narrow pedantic sense and a broad liberal spirit should inspire those whose duty it is to interpret it. After 1980 the court has changed its direction to securing the rights of citizens from arbitrary actions of the executive and creating a human rights jurisdiction by an enlarged meaning of Article 14 (The Right to Equality) and Article 21 (The Right to Life and Personal Freedom). Between them the court has for all practical purposes introduced the “due process provision” in the Indian Constitution in such matters. In the so-called public interest litigation (PIL) the court freely decrees rules of conduct for government and public authorities which are akin to legislation and oversees their working.
To give a few examples: the court in the interest of clean environment has ordered and supervised the use of clean fuel for vehicles in New Delhi; it has framed schemes of admission in educational institutions throughout India, and made the right to education into a fundamental right from a directive of State policy, and made guidelines to be adopted by public institutions for controlling sexual harassment of women at work places. The jurisdictional peg on which it is done is that such matters affect “the life” of the citizen under Article 21 of the Constitution. Its justification is that the other branches of government have failed or are indifferent to the solution of the problems. In such matters, the court is acting in advance of the political branches of the government.
By and large such orders have been considered necessary and welcomed by the public, but the question which arises is – can judges ignore the separation of powers in the Constitution and become administrators, and do they have the competence to make policy choices and run the administration? Legislatures and government can be made accountable for their legislation and actions by the electorate if they err. Judicial activism of this type which is not grounded on any textual commitment to the Constitution, unlike activism in cases of human rights and life and personal liberty raises questions of accountability of a judiciary.
The value system takes precedence over personality. Honesty is a tendency.
Judicial accountability is a facet of judicial independence. It must be developed consistent with the principles of judicial independence. Constitutionalism is not enhanced by hostility directed against the judiciary which plays such a pivotal role in maintaining the rule of law. Coming to judicial accountability, there is no difficulty in accepting the principle that in a society based on the rule of law and democratic principles of governance, every power holder is, in the final analysis, accountable to the people.
The legislature is accountable to the electorate. The executive is indirectly accountable to the people through the elected legislature. There is no reason why the judiciary should not be accountable to the community for its due performance of the functions vested in it. Power is given on trust and judicial power is no exception.
The challenge, however, is to determine how the judiciary can be held to account, consistent with the principle of judicial independence. How does one achieve the right balance between autonomy in decision making and independence from external forces on the one hand and accountability to the community on the other hand?
While not recommending the regular election of judges or their recall by popular vote, I would venture to suggest that Judges, unlike legislators, ministers or public servants, should be accountable to the jurisdiction they serve through their absolute adherence to a set core of judicial values. Through inheritance of British constitutional principles, judges in many Commonwealth countries are accountable to either the legislature or the executive, in the sense that one or the other of these two branches of government is vested by the Constitution with the power to remove judges for proven misbehaviour or incapacity. At times this power has been grossly abused in some of the countries.
Judges inevitably end up in the political arena in deciding controversial cases – whichever side they rule. In resolving disputes between citizens and the State or evaluating a constitutional issue, Judges are forced to make decisions which are at times termed political. Judges are, however, not in a position to defend their judgements as they are bound by a code of silence. As stated above, Judges should account for the exercise of judicial power, especially when pronouncing judgements of significance.
Public and media criticism of Judges and judgements is a common feature today throughout the common law world. Like other public institutions, the judiciary must be subject to a fair criticism. But, what I am concerned with is response to criticism, particularly criticism that is illegitimate and irresponsible. In the context of such illegitimate and irresponsible criticism, it must be borne in mind that love for justice is rare – what most people desire is justice which favours them. Our Code of Judicial Conduct will meet its goal if a talented, hopeful young person looks in the mirror and sees in the reflection the desire to exemplify the standards of justice and the possibility of doing so. Excerpted from the M.C. Setalvad Memorial Lecture delivered by the Chief Justice of India in New Delhi last week Setalvad set standards for future Attorney Generals In December, 1937, M.C. Setalvad became the Advocate General of Bombay and in that office, as in every office he subsequently held, he rose to the demands of the office. 1943 would have seen him as the first permanent Indian Chief Justice of Bombay, for he was invited to fill that high office. But, he declined the invitation on a ground which must fill every member of the Bar with pride; he refused to be a party in superseding the claims of the first court friend, Sir Harilal Kania. And when those claims were nevertheless passed over, i Setalvad felt an indignation which found a noble expression in the moving words he used in the Supreme Court on the occasion of Chief Justice Kania’s death.
But, what the Bench lost, the Bar of this country gained and, in 1950, Setalvad became the first Attorney General for India. He set standards which future Attorney Generals were required to maintain. He realised, for instance, that for lawyers to charge fees not according to the complexity of a case but according to the traits of a client was to reduce the great profession to the level of a trade or business. The greatest service Setalvad has rendered to the law and the administration of justice lies in the work he did as the Chairperson of the Law Commission and as the author of its report. The picture which that report presents regarding falling standards of the Bench and the Bar is grim but the reality is grimmer.
Nothing would have been easier for Setalvad to have his son Atul with him at Delhi and push him into practice in a year or two. He, however, refused to do so. He left his son in Mumbai to make his way at the Bar for himself, as Setalvad had made it before. All this may appear quixotic to the practical man; but it indicates the fundamental stability of Motilal’s character and his deep awareness of the fact that it does not profit a man to destroy his own and his son’s self-respect for the sake of easy success.