Needed: Dialogue, statesmanship
Because we cannot risk another judicial decision on appointments, writes FALI S. NARIMAN.
In the Constitution of India, 1950, the appointing authority for judges in the higher judiciary is the government of India, acting in the name of the president of India. Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed after consultation with the chief justice of India (CJI) and other judges of the Supreme Court (or high courts) as the appointing authority deems necessary for the purpose; judges of high courts are appointed after consultation with the CJI, the governor of the concerned state and the chief justice of the concerned high court. This simply worded prescription — expressed in Articles 124(2) and 217(1) — worked well in practice for the first two decades. By convention, whosoever the CJI recommended as judge was, almost invariably, appointed; whom the CJI did not recommend was not appointed.
But in 1981, in the S.P. Gupta case, much later known as the “first judge’s case”, a bench of seven judges of the Supreme Court presided over by Justice P.N. Bhagwati held (4:3) that the recommendations of the CJI for judges to be appointed in the higher judiciary were, constitutionally, not binding on the government of India. The (Congress) government, then in office, was delighted. It was now payback time. So when Bhagwati assumed office as CJI, the Congress government, still in office, declined to appoint judges recommended by him, since it was he who had judicially declared (in the S.P. Gupta case) that “consultation” in Article 124 did not mean “concurrence”.
It was much later, with the accumulated experience of the deleterious consequences flowing from the majority judgment in the first judges case, that new faces on the bench decided to take a “fresh look” at Article 124(2). In what has now become known as the “second judges case” (1993), a bench of nine judges held (by a majority, 7:2) that a collegiate opinion of a collectivity of judges was to be preferred to the opinion of the CJI. It also said that if the government did not accept the “recommendation” of the “collegium” (then consisting of the three senior-most judges), it would be presumed that the government had not acted bona fide.
Even after the judgment in the second judges case, recommendations made by the collegium were not made in the spirit in which the new doctrine had been propounded, since the collegiate of the three highest constitutional functionaries (the senior-most judges of the court) could not see eye to eye in the matter of appointment of judges to the higher judiciary. So when (again, by convention) the then senior-most judge, Justice M.M. Punchhi, became the CJI in January 1998 and recommended, with the concurrence of his two senior-most colleagues, that a particular list of five named persons be appointed to fill the vacancies in the highest court (all strictly in accordance with the methodology laid down in the second judges case), the government took exception to some of the names — justifiably, according to disinterested and knowledgeable persons.
But the CJI was adamant. When the government said that some of the names suggested could be accepted, but not all, the CJI said: “It will be all or none.” Apprehending the initiation of contempt proceedings, the government of the day (the NDA government with the BJP in the driving seat) thought it expedient to seek a presidential reference under Article 143 of the Constitution for the advisory opinion of the Supreme Court on certain dicta expressed in the second judges case.
All that ultimately happened after the presidential reference was that the collegiate was enlarged (by judicial diktat) from three to five of the senior-most justices, perhaps on the principle that there was greater safety in larger numbers. Meanwhile, Chief Justice Punchhi demitted office since he had reached the constitutional age of retirement. His successor, along with the four senior-most justices in the collegium, recommended names of appointees, which were accepted. This shows (it is said) that the collegium system worked. The response of lawyers has been, “Yes, but not always in this manner.”
The truth is that the system of recommendation for judicial appointments by a collegium of the five senior-most judges (like that of the three that went before) is not institutionalised: no mechanism is prescribed (by the collegium itself), no office is set up, no data gathered in advance, no criteria evolved as to who among the high court judges — all aspirants to a place in the Supreme Court — should be recommended. There is no reason given as to why a broad consensus among all the justices of the Supreme Court is not to be preferred to the views only of the five senior-most.
The entire system operates ad hoc, based on no principle. And the choice of judges to be recommended has varied in quality with the collegium’s fast-changing composition. The system has failed, according to me and many others. But in the opinion of the judges, including a succession of chief justices of India, it has not. More importantly, the BJP government that is now in office had, as part of the NDA government in 1998, categorically informed the nine-judge bench hearing the presidential reference that it was not seeking a review of the judgment in the second judges case — the judgment that first initiated the novel idea of a “collegium” of senior-most judges.
In this situation, what would be the right thing to do? I believe that before embarking on the new experiment of a broad-based National Judicial Commission, even one loaded with a majority of sitting judges as members, it is imperative that there should be meaningful dialogue between the executive and the collectivity of all the judges of the Supreme Court (represented by its chief justice), so that a mutually acceptable solution can be found. It must be found. Statesmanship is the need of the hour, because we cannot risk another judicial decision. The executive, the judges and the lawyers must resolve to avoid, at all cost, a fourth judges case.
The writer is a constitutional jurist and senior advocate to the Supreme Court