Why is it so hard to budge a judge?
It was assumed by our Constitution makers that once a judicial committee finds a judge guilty of misbehaviour, Parliament would automatically endorse the finding of the judicial committee and pass the appropriate address to the president with the requisite majority. That was the assumption underlying this provision. Unfortunately, Parliament did not build up a convention on these lines. Therefore, the procedure became difficult and doubtful.
In former Supreme Court judge Justice V. Ramaswami’s case in 1993, the ruling party, the Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao, did not issue a whip to the members and in fact, told them to abstain from the vote. Ramawami’s supporters prevailed on the party, and this abstention by the Congress defeated the motion, which set a very bad precedent, and earned a bad name for the party. That event has encouraged some judges to take a very rigid stand: not to resign even when serious allegations are made against them by responsible persons. It has had a negative impact on the minds of these people, as errant judges assume nothing will happen to them since impeachment is such a difficult procedure. This has been a serious setback to the independence and the credibility of the judiciary.
Thereafter, there have been a number of cases involving judges of against whom serious allegations of misconduct have been made. There have been cases where criminal prosecution was also initiated. Shamit Mukherjee of the Delhi high court and Nirmal Yadav of the Punjab and Haryana high court are examples. There have also been some cases where the Chief Justice of India did not give his permission to proceed; such permission is required in law. K. Veeraswamy, a former chief justice of the Madras high court, was prosecuted for having disproportionate assets. The real point is that because impeachment is difficult and uncertain, some judges behave irresponsibly.
In the Justice Soumitra Sen case currently before Parliament, a committee was set up, consisting of a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, Justice B. Sudershan Reddy, an eminent lawyer like F.S. Nariman, an eminent judge like Chief Justice Mukul Mudgal of the Punjab and Haryana high court. That committee found this gentleman guilty of retaining the monies of a client that he received as an advocate-receiver, and of holding on to that money in his account even after becoming a judge of the high court. He returned the money only later, after the high court ordered him to do so. This was considered to be misbehaviour on the part of the judge.
Instead of accepting the findings given by an impartial committee, Sen has chosen to challenge the findings in Parliament. This isn’t a healthy development. The Rajya Sabha has since voted for his impeachment. Now it all depends on the vote in the Lok Sabha. According to me, in principle, it is not a wise decision to make MPs the custodians of judicial ethics and judicial conduct. If they are to apply their own standards of probity to the misbehaviour of judges, they might find it difficult to find him guilty of serious misbehaviour warranting removal. Therefore, there should be another method for easier removal of a judge found to be guilty of doubtful integrity.
I suggest an amendment of the Constitution to incorporate a provision permitting the immediate removal of a judge who, in the opinion of the collegium of the Supreme Court is a person of doubtful integrity and doesn’t deserve to remain in office. He can be paid some compensation in lieu of the forsaking of service, instead of having to suffer him on the bench with doubts about his honesty in the minds of the public. The judicial system cannot afford to have such black sheep on its rolls.
If such a provision is made, it can be applied to public servants found to be of doubtful integrity. Proving corruption in a court of law is difficult because the bribe-giver and -receiver will thwart all attempts to prosecute them. The same problem arises with departmental enquiries. Even in those rare cases where prosecution succeeds, it takes a long time and by the time the decision comes, the judiciary would have suffered an irreparable loss. On the other hand, if such people are removed forthwith, on payment of some compensation, the system would be much healthier and will enjoy greater credibility.
Those inclined to accept gratification will also be under check for fear of removal forthwith if discovered. It will have a salutary effect even on the existing judges and will instill fear in their minds, so that they do not resort to corrupt ways, and remain honest. Of all the institutions, the judiciary especially cannot afford to have corrupt persons in its ranks. Therefore I strongly recommend such a provision being made in the Constitution. In that case, the impeachment procedure would become redundant.
There is a judicial accountability bill in the works, but well intentioned as it is, it does not go far enough, and does not have adequate teeth to deal with the problem effectively. There should be a provision for the suspension of a judge when complaints against him are being investigated. At the same time, we must take care to ensure that disgruntled litigants do not level false accusations against judges who might have decided against them. We have to protect judges from such baseless complaints. The judicial accountability bill will have the unintended effect of allowing false complaints to be made, which is not conducive to the independence of the judiciary. There is no provision for the speedy removal of an errant judge.
The Supreme Court has been trying an in-house procedure, but it is not a transparent one. There is a feeling that cases are pushed under the carpet for fear of adverse publicity. Therefore, there is a clear need for a transparent mechanism of accountability for judges. Even in the matter of declaration of assets in public, there was hesitation within the judiciary. It is necessary to ensure transparency in these matters in order to sustain the confidence of the people in the system.
The writer is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, and an expert in constitutional law
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