The clamour against the courts has been continuous. Initially, there was talk of a “committed” judiciary. Then, of judicial accountability and transparency. And so on. The latest is — why should judges choose judges? Hence, the effort to replace the collegium by a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC). The bill has already been passed in both Houses of Parliament. Is it the right way to do so? I think, No.
Let us see what is happening in the country. Who selects ministers? The prime minister and chief ministers. Who selects the generals? The generals. Who selects army commanders? The army. Who selects government servants? The government.
Why then do we want a different method of selection for the judiciary? Why should the judiciary not be allowed to select judges? Is it an effort to destroy the one institution that has performed and exposed scams and scandals like Coalgate and 2G?
The founding fathers created a judicial pyramid. The subordinate courts were the base. Then came district courts. The high courts followed at the state level. The Supreme Court was placed at the apex. They also laid down the procedure for the selection and appointment of judges. The selection and appointments of the officers in the subordinate and district courts are made in accordance with the rules framed and promulgated by the government in accordance with the Constitution. The “control” vests in the high court. In so far as appointments to the higher judiciary are concerned,
the matter was considered by the Supreme Court in the second and third judges’ cases.
The court’s dictum has been followed. Judges to the high courts and Supreme Court have been selected by collegiums for some time now. The scope for interference by the political executive has been reduced to a minimum. Consequently, criticism from different quarters is understandable. But can the JAC improve the quality of judges?
No system of selection can be absolutely perfect. Institutions run by human beings will reflect human frailties. A fact that deserves mention is that the Constitution itself provides for Union and state public service commissions to make selections to the various services. The commissions have been in place for a long time. Has their performance been beyond reproach or even satisfactory? Have these commissions not been described as “personal” service commissions? The kind of eminent persons proposed to be included in the JAC are usually members of the state and Union public service commissions too. Yet, what do we have? Petitions in courts alleging all kinds of malpractices. Still more, states have moved petitions, prosecuted members or chairpersons of the commissions for different irregularities and even offences. Would a similar commission for judicial appointments change everything for the better? Looks unlikely.
Second, the state is the single-largest litigant in the country. Should a litigant have any say whatsoever in the choice of judges?
Third, in a democracy, independence of the judiciary is of paramount importance. A fearless and independent judiciary is a basic feature of the Constitution of India. It is a part of the “basic structure” and should not be sacrificed at the altar of the executive’s anxiety or ego. Legally speaking, the validity of the proposed bill is extremely doubtful.
The members of the collegium also monitor the performance of judges and lawyers who have to be considered for appointment to the high courts or the Supreme Court. They examine judgments of the persons who are considered for elevation. So far as the JAC is concerned, the majority shall not have that opportunity. They will necessarily have to depend upon hearsay evidence. This will be totally improper.
It is alleged that the collegium does not have a mechanism to “verify the character and antecedents of judges.” I think, it is not so. The court and/ or the chief justice can always ask the concerned agencies to do the needful. In certain cases, it has been actually done. I think the fear is wholly unfounded.
It has been suggested that judges sometimes indulge in mutual give-and-take. As a result, some people who should not have become judges at all have been elevated to still higher positions and courts, it is argued. Assuming this to be correct, can anybody claim we are totally impervious to all kinds of political and social influences or pressures? Has it never happened that, at the highest level, files are held up till the name of a particular person is cleared by the collegium?
But is the JAC the solution? No!
A rare exception under the collegium system has the potential of becoming the rule when the final word is left to the executive. Are the series of scams and scandals that have taken place recently in India not enough to caution us about the state of political morality? The judiciary is one institution in India that has performed and delivered. We can tinker with it only at our own peril.
The writer is former chief justice,
Kerala High Court