In defence of the collegium
The appointment of judges at the level of the high courts and Supreme Court continues to be problematic, in spite of cosmetic changes brought in through judicial activism in two stages. What remains is known as the collegium system. It was formulated by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court after hearing long arguments addressed by top-ranking counsel. Initially, the collegium system was generally welcomed, despite opposition from politicians on the ground that the judges had arrogated to themselves the power of choosing judges. But in due course, it received criticism from different quarters, including members of the Bar. It is true that the collegium system has remained in force for more than 15 years. As the years have passed, burgeoning criticism that the present system did not remedy the drawbacks of the erstwhile mechanism have eventually become more strident.
At least in a few instances, unsuitable persons have found their way to seats of judges in the high courts. It is, of course, a matter of relief that the number of such persons has not swelled to alarming proportions. At the same time, it would not be true to say that no unsuitable person has reached the Supreme Court bench through the collegium system. The lesson to learn is that however much improvement is sought to be achieved through changes to the appointments process, the efficacy of its working depends on the vision and dedication of the persons empowered to manage the system.
The chairman of the Law Commission of India has suggested that a seven-member judicial appointments commission (JAC), with a preponderance of members from the judiciary, be instituted. But of what use are the proposed changes if some members of the JAC function in the same manner as before? What is the guarantee that only persons of impeccable and proven integrity, coupled with the moral strength to assert their dissent (if any) on record, would fill up the JAC? Having been a member of the collegium of the Supreme Court, I know how outsiders seek (and get) access so as to canvass for the decision-making process. I doubt that the situation would change if the proposed composition of the JAC were to be implemented. I am also not prepared to say that the selection of “eminent persons” would not become diluted in due course, particularly because of the vagueness in standardising who these “eminent persons” can be. I am sceptical of the outcome of the JAC in the long run, given that the scope for manipulation and favouritism cannot be fully eliminated even within it.
A former chief justice of the Kerala High Court had evolved an experiment while adhering to the collegium mechanism. When there were three vacancies of Bar candidates, he invited recommendations from all his companion judges in the high court, requesting them to send at least five names each. He got 40 names altogether, and shortlisted them to 10. He studied their performance and presented his views before the other members of the collegium of the high court. When there was dissent, he expanded the three-member collegium and obtained their views also. He made the final recommendation to the Supreme Court. In that process, the Kerala High Court gained three very fine judges. I thought that the same could be followed by the chief justices of other high courts and, in fact, I wrote an article in support of it. But on deeper thought, I sensed that if the practice continued and remained in place for much longer, the scope for canvassing with other judges for interested persons would have increased greatly and the experiment would have been rendered ineffective.
The criticism that the executive has now no role in the appointment of judges is, to a great extent, misplaced. In my view, there should not be any dispute on the proposition that judges should have the first-stage opportunity to point out who the best candidates for judgeship are. But their judgements on that score cannot be treated as infallible. When names of candidates are sent by the collegium to the executive, it is definitely possible for the executive to conduct a thorough inquiry through such departmental agencies as they could trust. Then the executive can send back the names to the collegium for further consideration and a final decision. One change I wish to propose is to permit the executive to propose names to the collegium at the initial stage.
Whenever recommendations are to be made for more than two vacancies (it may go up to 15 and sometimes even to 20), there could be a temptation for members of the collegium to compromise in order to accommodate candidates on barter considerations. Whenever bulk recommendations have occurred in the past, some not-so-suitable (if not totally unsuitable) candidates have succeeded in getting access to the list. This defect can be effectively eliminated by restricting recommendations strictly to one or two vacancies at a time, and definitely no more. In my view, the existing system can continue with the modifications indicated above.
The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court