SC judges: Most sign off with grace, others remain Lordships

Supreme Court of India


Between the first Chief Justice of India Harilal Jekisundas Kania and present CJI S H Kapadia, there have been 36 others who held the top judge’s post. How many do we remember for their contribution to make judiciary a better institution and lift it a notch higher in public esteem? Few CJIs lasted in public memory after they retired. Fewer etched their names in the annals of judicial history as harbingers of changes. A still fewer number of Supreme Court judges are remembered after retirement. For, most do their constitutional job, reach the sunset of their career and sign off without disturbing the discipline they learnt in judicial melancholy. But there are exceptions. Justice Markandey Katju is one. When he was a sitting judge and presiding over a Bench, he had the power to dismiss a petition without assigning a reason while lecturing lawyers on how to prepare arguments. He got attention of the public and press for speaking his mind. His views, as distinguished from his judgments, were based sometimes on law and common sense but mostly on purely personal knowledge.

He did not encounter much criticism as a sitting judge. For, most were apprehensive of the contempt power vested with a judge. After retirement, he changed little and continued expressing his views on all and sundry without moderation. Shorn of his contempt powers, the retired judge soon found himself being questioned. On a daily basis, he was seen either making statements supporting his views, issuing clarifications on distorted versions of his earlier statements or e-mailing the list of his growing band of supporters. What he probably missed in the din of self-created cacophony was that he has ruptured the tranquility of melancholic judicial discipline. He kept harping on the misuse of freedom of expression by the press with impunity.

If anyone abuses the right to freedom of expression, he would be dealt with by the aggrieved party, for every journalist is aware that he enjoys no immunity from the process of defamation, libel or contempt laws just because he works for a newspaper or a TV channel. In C K Dapthary vs O P Gupta [1971 SCR 76], the Supreme Court more than 40 years back had said, “Freedom of press under Constitution is not higher than that of a citizen and, that there is no privilege attaching to the profession of press as distinguished from the member of public. To whatever height the subject of general may go, so also may the journalist, and if an ordinary citizen may not transgress the law, so must not the press.”

If some among us in the profession harbour a misconception about enjoying some special status before law, we must know that many senior journalists have faced the rigour of defamation, libel and contempt laws. What about the judges? Justice Ruma Pal, the third woman judge of the Supreme Court appointed in its golden jubilee year, reflected on the attitude of judges of high courts and the Supreme Court with a soul searching speech on November 10 at the V M Tarakunde Memorial Lecture.

She said judges were afflicted with “multitude of sins”, but culled out seven deadly ones — brushing under the carpet, hypocrisy, secrecy, plagiarism and prolixity, intellectual arrogance or dishonesty, judicial indiscipline and nepotism. It gladdens no one to be aware of the sins afflicting judges, but one must admire Justice Pal for the plain speak. One would have loved to hear from her about the life of judges who on retirement suddenly end their intrinsic association with judiciary. Well, we are not talking about the lucky few among retired Supreme Court and HC judges who land post-retirement assignments and shift from a judge’s quarters to a bungalow allotted by the government as chairman of a tribunal or a statutory council.