Change must respect basic structure
The relationship between “democracy” and “secrecy” has always been debated, and it has been highlighted by the system of judicial appointments. The proposed judicial appointments commission (JAC) seeks to partly answer that question. Under review is the judicial collegium method of appointments, in use since the 1990s (which consists today in the supremacy of five senior-most justices of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice of India), as against the constitutional method in place between the 1950s and the 1990s (where the executive nominated candidates in consultation with the CJI and such other justices as it deemed fit).
Neither method can be said to have failed or succeeded, because the citizen has no way of knowing who the candidates are, how they are selected and why. No empirical study of judicial appointments is possible because the records are not available, and like the electoral nomination of candidates, the right to information does not exist so far as judicial elevations or transfers of high court justices are concerned. Stories in which judges, lawyers, law ministers and journalists tell us about the “system” are abundant, but such anecdotal evidence is hearsay and not ordinarily admissible in a court of law.
In the three judges cases, including a reference for advisory opinion, the court arrogated the power to elevate (and transfer high court) justices through a tortured interpretation of Articles 124 and 217 of the Constitution, by saying that the word “consultation” shall mean the “consent” of the CJI. But a constitutional convention giving primacy to the CJI was already in place — according to the law secretary’s affidavit, only seven out of some 348 recommendations were negatived by the Central government. If the system of executive nomination has worked so well, why the change?
Are the CJIs, in some cases, constrained to approve executive-dominated elevations? Justice Markandey Katju’s recent expose suggests that the CJI is vulnerable to alleged manoeuvring by the prime minister’s office. The justices in the judges cases seemed to think so, given that they accorded primacy first to the CJI, then to two judges and the CJI, and finally to a collegium of five justices.
To its credit, the UPA government introduced nearly half a dozen bills for judicial appointments and transfers, and contemplated a slew of measures on judicial standards, accountability, non-impeachment offences and transparency of the judicial process. The new government is espousing the cause; it clearly disfavours the political bravado that inspired a Union law minister to say that he had justices in his pockets; this is no longer the signature tune of modern governance. Rather, the state now wants a JAC that would avoid the vices of politicians appointing judges, and of the justices appointing their own.
This is welcome, as is the agreement that the senior-most judge may only be the CJI (at least till 2021, when even reforms contemplating a minimum tenure for the CJI may occur). The many UPA bills made the CJI the chair of the JAC, converged in making two senior-most justices of the Supreme Court members, provided a
process to identify two eminent citizens, and finally culminated in the 120th constitutional amendment bill, which too lapsed in the Lok Sabha. The NDA is likely to revive the amendment and bill in the new Lok Sabha. The text of the bills, the debates in Parliament as they occurred, the Law Commission’s report and other reports make compulsory, if dull, reading on this vexed subject.
In a consultation with eminent jurists convened by the Union law minister on July 28, while most went to the extent of saying that the judicial collegium had failed and agreed that the system of appointments needed to be changed, all the “jurists” endorsed the “dominance” of the CJI and his senior companions. If the advice of the CJI and his companion justices is to have an “edge” or “dominance”, how is it to be achieved? Should the JAC then adopt a weighted voting procedure, not unlike the United Nations Security Council? If the JAC is to decide by consensus, what will happen if the justices do not yield? What if some other eminent members, including the Union law minister, remain recalcitrant? And how much weight, if any, should be given to the Intelligence Bureau reports on prospective candidates?
A greater fundamental difficulty is posed by the basic structure doctrine. I have previously argued in these pages (‘Just governance’, IE, June 10) and at a New Delhi consultation that the best course is to obtain an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court on a draft amendment bill, considering whether abolition of the judicial collegium offends the basic structure and if it does, how the alternate JAC could be made constitutionally compatible. Already, the CJI has made it clear that the matter can only be settled in a judicial opinion; since the judges cases were decided judicially, no question arises of a mere administrative order by the court.
The court may advise the president that the basic structure is not violated or that certain changes to the JAC could save it from the indictment of offending it. This will result in a healthy dialogue on system change and collaboration, rather than an avoidable conflict between Parliament and the Supreme Court.
The basic structure here is the independence of the judiciary and judicial review. It is this power that ultimately decides the essential features of the Constitution. Appointments and transfers of justices definitely affect the basic structure, and the court should have a say in it. The executive may present evidence before the justices on why the judicial architecture needs to be reformed, and how the judicial collegium has “failed” the nation. Since almost all the leaders of the Bar believe that the judicial collegium has “failed” in drawing the best and brightest to become justices, they should have little difficulty in persuading the court.
The argument against an advisory opinion is that it would take undue time. But the 2G reference was relatively expeditiously disposed; the non-collegium justices would be justified in accelerating the opinion. In any event, the time taken for the reference will be democratically well-invested. The alternative of an adversarial proceeding, where the court may continue via a stay order to make appointments and transfers, scarcely advances the cause. Even under Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (which enshrined the basic structure doctrine), Parliament has plenary powers to amend the Constitution. However, enacting the JAC without consulting the court may invite judicial wrath, and even lead to a constitutional crisis.
The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice chancellor of the Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi