Justice Ranjan Gogoi delivers the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture — The Vision of Justice


Full text of Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s speech at RNG Memorial Lecture:

I express my most heartfelt gratitude to The Express Group for extending this opportunity to me to deliver the lecture which has been organised in the memory of a man who was an institution in his own right: Ramnath Goenka ji.

While unlike some of you present here, I had not had the occasion to ever meet him, but, fortunately I have not been untouched by his proud legacy. Which gleams through that what he had founded as an answer to Gandhi ji’s call to start a swadeshi newspaper. Living in the realm of the Raj, it needed an iron-will and iron man and we found it in a young Ramnath ji. His legacy also gleams through the rich jurisprudence on the Freedom of the Press that he was instrumental in moulding, and which, by virtue of my Office, I work every day. It needed a committed and a cause-driven litigant – a rarity which it is nowadays – and we found it, yet again, in Ramnath ji. During the dark days of the Emergency, he stood as an unwavering gatekeeper of those fundamental liberties that we hold so dear today and that is his legacy too.


Today, after all these years, some remember him as the ‘Warrior of the Fourth Estate’ 1 , some remember him as a “dogged, unyielding adversary” 2 , some remember him as an “iconoclast”, some as a “magnificent rebel”. He was, at times unapologetic, at times uninhibited, at times even contradictory, but forever fierce, forever feisty, and forever fearless. His entire life trajectory from Darbhanga to Madras to Bombay; from the Constituent Assembly to the Newsroom to the Courtrooms, is a test case of its own kind that we, perhaps, need to use more often in our lives, in our institutions. Not too long back, I had read an interesting news article talking about the surprising surge – which is not so surprising, all things considered – in the sale of George Orwell’s 1984 in the United States. That piqued my interest in revisiting the classic. And, for some reason, I want to recollect a thought from it today. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress party along with former finance minister P Chidambaram at the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

If I had to put it very simply, for me, this is what Ramnath ji stood for. The freedom to say that two plus two make four. And, that is how I remember him as. Someone who could call Spade a Spade. Someone who could speak truth to power. Even if it came at a cost. To be ready to break, but not bend could be called obstinacy by some, and determination by others. Is it a matter of perspective? I do not know. And, I cannot say for others but as far as I am concerned, I only feel that we need to ask ourselves some questions: Where is the Goenka in us; his ideals; his values? Is that extraordinary phenomena losing his relevance today, after all these years? Why I have chosen the topic for this discourse merits a context too. And, this is the context. These are some sore questions, but too significant to get lost in the everydayness. And, when it is so, what other better tribute can there be to a visionary who embodied in so many ways the spirit of our Constitution, than to spend a thought. To spend a thought over how far we have come to achieve the vision that he had seen as someone who helped free the country in one era, and helped it become a meaningful Democracy in another.


I will use a few minutes to put across my proposition as to what I intend to say when I talk about the “Vision of Justice”. I will borrow from the Chief Editor Shri. Raj Kamal Jha himself, because it offers a very fine perspective. Very powerfully and thoughtfully and rightly, he said of Ramnath ji in one his letters to me, that, “fierce independence” and “enduring sense of inquiry without fear or favour” were the two values that Ramnath ji believed formed the “bedrock of Justice”. It is absolutely incontestable that they do and, for convenience, let me call them the Bedrock Principles. But, if I were to look at it anatomically, while these do indeed form the bedrock of Justice, what is the Form/Body of the ideal called Justice which rests on this bedrock? The Bedrock Principles have been the talk of the town lately considering how the entire thinktank is so keenly focused on it. And I am not suggesting that it ought not to be. It ought to be done and it is being done. I cannot recall the last time, the Judicial wing of the State made so much news. On a lighter note, let us recall, Hamilton (the American Founding Father) who had suggested that the Judiciary was the least dangerous branch of the State’s three branches – and I will refer to him again during the course of my address – but, were he to be here today, I wonder if he would have felt the same way. More so, in the light of the IE Top 100 Most Powerful Indians which included several names from the judiciary. But, the fact of the matter is that if we have to take stock of how we have fared – and about seven decades later since we ventured into becoming a Constitutional Order, this appears to be an opportune time to do so – we might as well do it comprehensively. And, by comprehensively what I mean is that we must evaluate both the Bedrock Principles and the Form Principles because the Vision of Justice, the way I understand it, is a compound of both. Clearly, they are not unconnected. And over the course of next about half an hour, I will attempt to touch upon both. I will begin with the Form Principles, and bear with me, in order to drive home my point, I may have to get somewhat academic.

From (L-R): Hrishikesh Roy, Chief Justice, Kerala High Court, Deepak Gupta, Judge, Supreme Court, N V Ramanna, Judge, Supreme Court, Madan B Lokur, Judge, Supreme Court at the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha) 

You will agree, that in the backdrop of a bleeding mega partition, deeply entrenched inequities, perpetuating injustices, our Constitution ushered us into believing in a grand promise of transformation on a scale that was beyond reformatory. It was, in all its full glory, a revolution in all aspects of life – social, economic, political. In a way, it said, let bygones be and the new society that we would be, would be egalitarian. While preserving our pluralistic character, we would be democratic and united too. The State would be religion-neutral, the citizens equal and together. Coming to think of it, it was just as pretentious as it was unpretentious an idea. But be that as it may, public institutions (one of them being the Judiciary) were inherited, they were tweaked where need was felt, to give life to this prodigious architecture of Justice. And, here, I would like to clarify that by justice, I am not implying only the juridical connotation of the word which is the administration of justice by the courts of law – although it is just as imperative – but justice is something that is an overarching principle, an underlying fundamental, the spirit, an order so to say. Which is why I say “prodigious”.


Because, it was a confluence of very many philosophies – [1] the Aristotelian, for instance, which suggests that the very essence of the State is justice which according to the philosopher was a social virtue; good of others; equality and fairness. When we peruse the Preamble to the Constitution- our vision document – is it not that this ideology is enshrined in the words “Equality of status and opportunity”? [2] Or, the Utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill whose view was that justice was the greatest good to the greatest numbers. In the Preamble, is this not enshrined in the principles of “Socialism”, and “Equality” yet again? [3] Or, the relatively more modern one: the Rawlsian perspective which is that justice as fairness is the most egalitarian and also the most plausible concept of liberalism. In the Preamble, is this not reflected in the words “Liberty of thought, expression, belief”. So, the Preamble, if you deconstruct it precept-wise, is the very embodiment of these ideas. Justice is not something that is a standalone precept but an amalgam of other ideals like “socialism”; “democracy”; “liberty”; “equality”; “fraternity”, to name a few. They are not isolated silos because their undying endeavour is to establish one discipline – of overall justice, of an inclusive society. And, this is exactly what I meant by the Form Principles of Justice as an ideal. As a composite unit called Justice, these had been intended to be achieved by the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.

Justice is not something that is a standalone precept but an amalgam of other ideals like “socialism”; “democracy”; “liberty”; “equality”; “fraternity”, to name a few — Justice Gogoi in his address. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Now, it will make for an incredibly interesting and if I may add overwhelmingly contentious tale to tell as to how the Executive and the Legislature have performed on this front. But the scope of my discourse will be limited to the judiciary’s endeavour in this regard. A few months back, I had the occasion to deliver the Justice P.D. Desai Memorial Lecture, at Ahmedabad. And, there I had proposed that attaining Constitutional Idealism was not like chasing a rainbow and the Supreme Court, through its pronouncements, had been reflecting it. It would not be a display of the pessimism of the intellect today, if I were to say that while, indeed, attaining Constitutional Idealism (= Vision of Justice) is not like chasing a rainbow, but, it is so only in the courtrooms. Perhaps, because fields are where the rainbows are (“fields” being the operative word). The point being that the way nation is built and the way this grand Vision of Justice is attained in the confines of the courts through judicial pronouncements and the way they are built on the ground are two very disparate realities. Agreed, the aspirational aspect of the Constitution and the operational aspect of the Constitution will always be two different notions. The aspirational aspect is high idealism of a kind that is almost moralistic and preachy. The operational aspect has to do with the very strange realities of the ground, almost defeating. But then even if we may be slow to move to bridge the gap between the two, which itself is not an acceptable compromise either, but we must, at the least, not become retrograde.

Justice Ranjan Gogoi: The judgments beyond their bare letter, say that, societal morality is fickle and not that, but constitutional morality that ought to dictate terms. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Take for example the 2015’s ruling in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India 3 (2015). It is a celebrated judgment, where the Supreme Court held that the public’s right to know was directly affected by Section 66A. Interestingly, while doing so, the Court was certainly inspired by, amongst other rulings, Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras 4 (1950); Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi 5 (1950); Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India 6 (1973). If you would recall, these were perhaps some of the earliest pronouncements protecting an Independent Indian’s Speech and Expression and were delivered in the light of the rights of the Press, which verdicts themselves had endorsed that a democracy was a marketplace of ideas where the people had a right to know; that prior restraints were anathematic to a democracy and that the freedom of speech and of the press is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy. Shreya Singhal took this legacy ahead as it improved upon the jurisprudence on the independence of the Press to attain and promote the Constitutional precept of plurality of thought, diversity of opinion and the ethos of democracy in the tech-age and in the context of online speech. The Vision of Justice was indeed attained in the courtroom. Not once, but multiple times. But has it translated into reality? Has the success of these sterling verdicts reached the ground? I will let the facts speak for themselves. On the ground, it is a descent into chaos. And it is worrisome on all counts when you sue the messenger or when you shoot the messenger, or when the messenger itself declines to deliver the message because of the fear psychosis. On the 19 th June, The Indian Express had published a very insightful article (selected from The Economist) titled as ‘How Democracy Dies”.

From (L-R): Acting Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Justice Gita Mittal, Former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, CPI leader D Raja and jurist Soli Sorabjee at the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

It said, at one place, that, “…independent judges and noisy journalists are democracy’s first line of defence…Reports of the death of democracy are greatly exaggerated. But, the least bad system of government ever devised is in trouble. It needs defenders.” I agree but will only suggest a slight modification in today’s context – not only independent judges and noisy journalists, but even independent journalists and sometimes noisy judges. While Shreya Singhal was significant in its own right, NALSA v. Union of India 7 breathed new life into the Equality principle. The Court understood that our Founding Fathers’ vision about fundamental right against sex discrimination was to prevent differential treatment as a result of one’s not conforming to generalizations. The judgment made a momentous foray into the fountain-head of dynamism. And, I will get back to it but before I do that, I must touch upon a very fascinating judgment of 1986 vintage called Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala 8 . This was a case where three Jehovah’s Witnesses had refused to sing the National Anthem (as their tenets dictated so) when it was being sung in their school. They did stand up though. Nevertheless, they were expelled from the school. When the case found its way to the Supreme Court, while holding that the expulsion would be in violation of their Fundamental Right to ‘freedom of conscience’, the Court observed that “the real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution.”

Former Chief Justice of India Rajendra Mal Lodha (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

The court also felt the need to add a thought. And, I feel compelled to quote it. It is the penultimate line of the verdict and it says – “our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.” Recently. in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v. Government of Tamil Nadu 9 , the Court held that even in the matters of religious beliefs, constitutional legitimacy cannot be foregone and following Justice B.K. Mukherjea in Shirur Mutt case (of 1954), went on to hold that it is not the State or the religious Indian but the Constitutional Court which decides on what constitutes essential practices of any particular religion.

Some of you could be wondering about how these judgments are even related. They are not. But, they are, at the same time. Dissimilarity is that the first one originates in a very intimate, private sphere of life and the other two originate in what everybody seems to want to have a say in – the matters of faith. But, it is the similarity that should be the take away. The judgments beyond their bare letter, say that, societal morality is fickle and not that, but constitutional morality that ought to dictate terms. As an Israeli judge Aharon Barak points out, it is not the transient spirits of time but the fundamental values that should be the guiding voice 10.

In a way, it said, let bygones be and the new society that we would be, would be egalitarian. While preserving our pluralistic character, we would be democratic and united too. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

In his last address to the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar had said that we must not only be a political democracy but a social democracy as the former cannot last unless lies at the base of it the former. And, social democracy, he defined, as a way of life which recognises liberty, equality, fraternity as one principle. I wouldn’t want to wade into knowing if we are a successful political democracy, but, I do, earnestly believe, that we are a social democracy, in all aspects. But again, largely jurisprudentially. And the disparity is there because the two Indias – both just as perceptible – are at conflict. There is an India that believes that it is the New Order and there is an India that lives below a ridiculously drawn Poverty Line on daily wages in night shelters with no access to education or healthcare, let alone access to the Courts of Law. The ambivalence is intriguing. And, this is exactly what I call as getting lost in translation. One India in the aforementioned perspective is the Vision and to know how far we have succeeded in attaining this Vision of Justice is really a matter of perception. But nevertheless, there is a graphic disparity right there and removing this disparity will be the mission for the Indian Judiciary in the times to come. And if I may add, for that to happen, it is going to require a “constitutional moment” of its own kind in the life of this institution, which I believe has been long overdue.

“I will only say that if it wishes to preserve its moral and institutional leverage, it must remain uncontaminated,” says Justice Gogoi. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

The Constitutional history with reference to this institution as a whole (and, especially the Supreme Court) would show that its own role has constantly evolved in the light of the socio-political context. If 1970-1980 was the decade where it expounded the Basic Structure Doctrine, in 1980s, it constantly expanded the scope of Article 21 and by 1990s, it became somewhat of a “Good Governance Court” by innovatively interpreting Constitutional provisions to address the inadequacies consequent upon executive and legislative inactivity. In the first fifty years since our independence, the court has created a very sound jurisprudence which we continue to reap from. It is the inertia really that has kept us going till now. But the way things stand today, court processes are a trial even before the trial has begun. While I cannot say if it is a collective failure on our part but for a nation governed by the rule of law, is it not a matter of concern that to this extent at least, we are defying the idea of inclusiveness? Not a reform but a revolution is what it needs, to be able to meet the challenges on the ground and to keep this institution serviceable for a common man and relevant for the nation. For the effectiveness of the judgments to show, the justice dispensation system has to be made more result oriented i.e. to say, more focused on enforcement. I understand what Mr. Arun Shourie 11 suggests when he wonders if the judiciary is not being an “accessory to the resulting deterioration”, when it in its hopefulness and optimism, doesn’t go after its mandate till its implementation. I find it difficult to agree wholeheartedly. But I will certainly say that the judiciary must certainly be more pro-active, more on the front foot. This is what I would call as redefining its role as an institution in the matters of enforcement and efficacy of the spirit of its diktats, of course, subject to constitutional morality (= separation of powers) again. I will even go ahead to say that the institution, at all levels, needs to become more dynamic in the matters of interpretation of laws. And, this is what I mean to say by a constitutional moment of its own kind. However, it is going to be a tall order both at the micro level and the macro level because both come with their unique sets of challenges.

Executive Director of The Express Group Anant Goenka (left) presents a sketch to Justice Ranjan Gogoi at the third RNG Lecture in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

By micro level, what I mean is administration of justice on day-to-day basis. Here, the so-called “inefficiency” and “slow processes” have been historical challenges. I will put it very simply. The judiciary today is not a poor workman who blames his tools, but it is a workman with no tools. I am not going to saddle you with the figures that we keep consuming every day on pendency, arrears and judges’ strength but in the light of what a French author had once said, “Everything has been said already, but as no one listens, we must begin again.” 12 , I will only ask and request those at the helm to finally listen so that we must not have to begin again. In addition to that, I also feel that there is a pressing need to explore the endless limits of legal services mechanism. Legal awareness and legal empowerment of the marginalised in this vastly unequal society of ours, have to be a made an observable reality. Let me give you one instance which is glaring insofar as personal liberty is concerned. 67% of the prison population are undertrials, mostly belonging to the underprivileged classes and 47% of them are between the age of 18-30 years. Compare this with the U.K. where it is about 7% and the U.S. which is acknowledged to have a high rate of incarceration where the percentage is 22.7%. The period of about one year that a majority of the undertrials have been in custody would hardly redeem the situation. Will it be wrong to suggest that a fair share of our demographic dividend is being unjustifiably lodged in the jails and mostly for petty or less serious offences?

The judiciary, with whatever little it has had at its hand, has been a proud guardian of the great Constitutional vision. (Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

At the macro level, the judiciary as an institution is being seen as a course corrector, a leveller, a democratiser of sorts. And, since it is too well known that this country is on the cusp of an evolution, naturally it will have implications for this institution just as much. I would like you to recall that I had mentioned about Hamilton in the beginning of the discourse. While contemplating the U.S. Constitution 13 , he had said that the judiciary is the weakest of three branches because it neither has force of the Executive nor the will of the Legislature, but only judgment. This, and which I agree with absolutely, he said, was the “simple view of the matter”. The complex view is this. And which he was wise enough to warn about over two centuries ago. He had said that while the civil liberties will have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, they will have everything to fear from the union of the judiciary with either of the other two branches.

Punjab and Haryana High Court Judge Justice Surya Kant (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

I would like to believe, this is why, Ramnath ji had also said that “fierce independence” is indeed the bedrock of justice. But I would like to add that “independence” must always be responsible with due regard to established Constitutional values. This institution is the last bastion of hope and the one that the citizenry believes firmly, will give justice to them, come what may. And it has. The judiciary, with whatever little it has had at its hand, has been a proud guardian of the great Constitutional vision. It fills me with immense pride to see that as an institution, the judiciary has been endowed with great societal trust. This very fact gives it its credibility and this very credibility gives it its legitimacy. It is a very enviable spot for an institution. I will only say that if it wishes to preserve its moral and institutional leverage, it must remain uncontaminated. And, independent. And, fierce. And, at all times. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So is an institution. And if introspection is where we have to begin, we might as well begin there. Perhaps, we can hope and endeavour that in the future, it is not our finality, but really our infallibility that should define us. It is my imagination of an ideal world and I am aware of what Carl Jung had said of it. He had had said that, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.” I don’t know how true his view holds on other counts, but as far as idealism is concerned, I would say, it should be pursued like an axiom. Thank you very much.

Jai Hind!


The current accountability deficit


Debates on the collegium system generally start at the wrong place, namely, whether a national judicial commission will be a better alternative. The point at which they ought to start is whether the creation of such a system is constitutionally permissible. Article 124 of the Constitution states that every judge of the Supreme Court shall be appointed by the president in consultation with such of the judges of the Supreme Court, and of the high courts in the states, as the president may deem necessary. It also says that in the case of appointment of a judge other than the chief justice, the chief justice of India (CJI) shall always be consulted.

In the name of the independence of the judiciary, the Supreme Court said in 1993 that primacy in the matter of judicial appointments must lie in the final opinion of the CJI, “unless for very good reasons known to the executive and disclosed to the chief justice of India, that appointment is not considered to be suitable”. To mitigate the violence done to the

plain language of the Constitution and to reassure every one that power did not rest in one individual alone, that is, the CJI, the court created a new constitutional institution, a collegium of the senior-most judges.

This was not a creative interpretation of the Constitution, as the apologists for the collegium system would have us believe, but a plain rewrite. This was judicial overreach and it was only last year, 20 years later, that serious attempts began to repair the damage to the Constitution.

Having stated my fundamental objection, I will recapitulate my three other objections. First, there must be an element of democratic accountability in the matter of appointments to the higher judiciary, which has the power to strike down laws of Parliament and state legislatures, and even amendments to the Constitution. Second, when judges appoint judges, they look mainly at “technical competence” and seniority. They do not necessarily look at the social philosophies or gender sensitivities of prospective candidates. Third, judges do not pay particular attention to the idea of manpower planning, as is clear from the many short-term appointments of chief justices and short-term appointments to the Supreme Court. In a judge-dominated system, everyone needs to be given a “chance”.

And so, it is about time that we put a better system in place. There is no going back now to the original system of the executive appointing judges in consultation with the judiciary, by invoking the doctrine of “original intent”. Much has changed in the world since we enacted the Constitution. Processes of judicial appointments are far more participatory all over the world. Stakeholders in the justice delivery system are now accorded an important role. Let us look at just two examples.

In Canada, the advisory committee for judicial appointments includes a member of parliament from each recognised party, a retired judge, a nominee of the attorney general, a nominee of the law societies and two prominent Canadians who are neither lawyers nor judges. In South Africa, the Judicial Service Commission includes judges, the minister for justice or his nominee, advocates and solicitors nominated by their respective professional bodies, a professor of law, senators and four nominees of the president of whom two shall be advocates or solicitors.

The judicial appointments commission (JAC) needs to be written into the Constitution itself, not only in terms of its creation but also its composition. It is necessary to make this point because the previous government had originally sought to bring the commission into the Constitution, but left it to Parliament to make an ordinary law to prescribe its membership. This was undesirable. Successive governments would have been free to change its composition according to their will.

Should the JAC be a part-time body? The Union Public Service Commission is not part-time. Surely, appointments to the superior judiciary are not less serious a matter than civil service appointments. But the present collegium, by its very nature, can only meet in the evenings after the judges have finished their arduous courtroom work, and before they start writing their judgments and reading for their cases the next day. To make appointments to the Supreme Court and all the high courts in the country, we need a full-time institution with a permanent secretariat and its own information- gathering wing. And so, the judicial members would have to be former and not sitting judges. Similarly, jurists and eminent citizens will need to be full-time members. The only possible part-time ex officio member could be the law minister.

The national judicial commission will need to devise new methods for attracting talent to the judiciary. The old practice of “asking” and “inviting” must be supplemented by calling for applications from interested candidates (currently, you can apply to become a district judge, but it is bad form to apply to be a high court judge!). Search committees will have to look for the best legal talent, not only from within the court system but also outside. In the current system, non-litigating lawyers don’t ever get considered.

And the question of the “tilting balance” remains. Former judges (most recently, Justice A.P. Shah) take the view that the independence of the judiciary can only be secu red by judges outnumbering the others. I, however, believe that democratic accountability in the process of appointment is equally important and, in principle, judges should be marginally outnumbered.

Finally, since it looks as if we are getting down to business, we need to attend to the removal process as well; it is part of the same Article 124 that is going to be amended. Impeachment involves getting signatures from MPs. On the one hand, it makes it difficult for even genuine complaints to proceed further. On the other hand, it politicises the process. One impeachment failed because the then ruling party abstained from voting, and two others were aborted by midstream resignations (civil servants are not allowed to resign in the middle of disciplinary inquiries; can judges be allowed to do so?). The proposed national judicial commission must therefore be in charge of the removal of judges as well.

The writer is a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court

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

Politically coloured, legally suspect


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

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

A case for two commissions


There is now a consensus amongst judges, lawyers and legislators that the present system of appointment of judges to superior courts by a collegium of Supreme Court judges requires to be changed for a better one. There are sound reasons for this move.

First, the appointment of judges by the Supreme Court collegium has no foundation in our Constitution. Article 124 of the Constitution provides that every judge of the Supreme Court is to be appointed by the president after consultation with the chief justice of the Supreme Court and other judges of the Supreme Court and high courts. Similar power is given by Article 217 to the president in consultation with the chief justice of India (CJI), the governor of the state and chief justice of the high court for the appointment of judges to high courts.

In 1981, in what is known as the first judges’ case, the Supreme Court held that the power of appointment of judges of the superior courts resided solely and exclusively in the president, that is, the Central government, subject to full and effective consultation with the constitutional functionaries referred to in Articles 124 and 217. However, in 1992, the Supreme Court, in the second judges’ case, professing to safeguard the independence of the judiciary, reversed the first verdict and rewrote the constitutional provisions to hold that the primacy in the appointment of a judge of the Supreme Court was with the CJI, who would make his recommendation to the president after consultation with two of his senior judges. The president would only have the limited power of expressing his doubts on the recommendation of the CJI. The president’s doubts would not however prevail if the CJI reiterated his recommendation on the appointment of the judge. In a later judgment, known as the third judges’ case, the Supreme Court diluted the primacy of the CJI, and gave the power of appointment to a collegium of the CJI and four of his senior-most colleagues.

The judgments in the second and third judges’ cases are an extraordinary tour de force in the name of securing the independence of the judiciary. The court has rewritten the provisions of the Constitution for the appointment of judges. The executive’s function in the appointment process has for all practical purposes been eliminated and reduced to the formal approving of a recommendation made by the CJI and his collegium. “Consultation” with the CJI in the Constitution has been transmuted into an original power to appoint by the CJI and a collegium. The Constituent Assembly’s view at the time of enacting the constitutional provisions, that the CJI should not be the final appointing authority, was disregarded by the court. In no jurisdiction in the world do judges appoint judges.

Even if the collegium’s method for the appointment of judges has no foundation in the Constitution, it could have been excused had the system worked satisfactorily, but unfortunately, for over 20 years, it has not. In the first instance, the collegium system lacks transparency and is secretive. The public is not aware of the selection of a judge until his name is forwarded to the government by the collegium. Second, there have been instances of judges being selected or not selected due to favouritism or prejudice of members of the collegium. Third, selection on competitive merit of the appointees is discarded and judges are generally appointed to the Supreme Court on their seniority in ranking in the high courts. The late Justice J.S. Verma, principal author of the second judges’ judgment, later admitted that the collegium system had failed.

Should the earlier system of the exective appointing judges after proper consultation be restored? Paradoxically, from 1950 to 1973, some of the most outstanding judges of our Supreme Court were appointed through this system. Eminent judges like Michael Kirby of the Australian High Court are strongly in favour of restoring the old system, with control over it by Parliament. It was only during the period of the Emergency that this system was subverted, which led to the judiciary appropriating the power in the second judges’ case. Even today, in Australia and Canada, it is the executive that appoints judges after proper consultation.

To introduce a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) in India is a fundamental change in the Constitution. Such a change requires careful consideration and evaluation of the system. It is important to know that, except for the judicial appointment commission of the UK introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005, such commissions have not been successful elsewhere. The South African constitution provides for a judicial appointment commission, but its working is far from satisfactory and at times appointments have been influenced by the government. The same is true of judicial appointment commissions in other states in Africa.

If the JAC is to be introduced in India, its composition should be made part of the Constitution itself and not left to ordinary legislation by Parliament. There should be proper representation of members, including of the legal profession, in the JAC. The JAC will be over-stressed and overworked if it has to make appointments for 31 judges to the Supreme Court and over 800 judges to the 24 high courts. The CJI and two senior-most judges, who are to be part of the commission, would have to work in the commission to the neglect of their primary judicial duties of hearing and deciding cases. There ought to be two separate judicial commissions, therefore, one for the Supreme Court and the other for the high courts. The JAC for high courts ought to

be composed of retired judges of the Supreme Court or high courts, in addition to other members. In the UK, there are separate selecting bodies for high court and for supreme court. The overriding factor will be the merit of the candidate, but the commission, as in the UK, should consider diversity, namely, appointment of women judges and judges of various regions without of course sacrificing merit.

Overall, the creation of a JAC requires careful consideration and extensive consultation with all sections of the public, including the CJI. The present law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, rightly convened a meeting on July 28 of judges and lawyers and jurists to discuss the changes to be made. It is to be hoped that such consultations will be continued before a legislation is introduced. The collegium system has not worked, but we should not have a situation where we jump from the frying pan of the collegium to the burning fire of a chaotic National Judicial Commission.

The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court and former Solicitor General of India

First, insulate the judge from politics


The thesis of ‘committed’ judiciary has been abandoned, but its practice continues unabated. That is the real problem, writes RAM JETHMALANI.

A judge is the guardian of the small man and his bundle of rights, which enable him to realise his fullest material, moral and spiritual potential, and expand to the utmost frontiers of his body, mind and soul. No judge must aspire to harmony with the legislature and executive. Every judge must brace himself for a life of tension with both in the intelligent and stout defence of his ward, who needs constant protection against the insolence of unfeeling officials, the venality of politicians and the misdeeds of wicked neighbours and fellow citizens. Every court is essentially a court of wards; the Supreme Court has the entire citizenry as its ward. Our judges need not be sensitive to the oft-mounted attack that they are not elected and are, therefore, unaccountable and undemocratic.

This role of the judge makes one think about elected judges. But the system of elected judges has been tried elsewhere and I believe that it has produced jokes. The most instructive joke that you will find is that in a certain US state, the Democratic Party found a judge paralysed from the waist downwards and invariably, in elections, he won the sympathy vote. He triumphed in four successive elections but before the fifth, a Republican Party official said to his superior, “Sir, we have found a solution to our problem.” He asked, “What is it?” The answer: “Sir, this time we have found a judge who is paralysed from the waist upwards.” It will not work in India anyway.

Economics may have dominated the world most of the time and probably does dominate in some sense even now. But today, politics has overtaken economics in its influence. In the past few decades, all institutions, including the judiciary and of course the Bar, have struggled with the temptations of politics. Judges, like other mortals, are attracted to politics, particularly aspiring ones who consider favours from a ruling party to be stepping stones for upward mobility in the field. Usually, but not always, judges do often violate their oath of administering justice without fear or favour. Favours done have to be returned, feel some. We have therefore to evolve an effective mechanism of insulating judges against politics and involvement in political machinations of the kind that have disgraced some sections in the past not only in this country, but also elsewhere.
Politicians as a class and the executive in power must therefore have no voice in the appointment of judges. The executive is the biggest litigant in cases of citizen complaints of the oft-corrupt misuse of executive powers. Even a good judge appointed by a corrupt minister will not command public confidence. The second judges case, the origin of the present collegium system, was a correct decision, and the current system is vastly superior to the one it supplemented. It was the one that produced the tellingly sarcastic comment, “It has created two kinds of judges — those who know the law and those who know the law minister.”

South Africa, in its new constitution, adopted the model of a judicial commission as the method of selection, which has been operational since 1996. The law minister is formally consulted and he makes his comments upon the appointees or recommendees of the judiciary. The comments of the law minister are considered with respect and attention, but the final word lies with the commission. I am committed to this mechanism as our final solution. I must hasten to explain why.

I agree with the weighty opinion of my erudite friend, senior counsel Anil Divan, in his recent article in The Hindu: “The present secretive process followed by the collegium excludes public scrutiny, violates the citizen’s right to know and leads to diminishing respect for the judiciary.” Some bad appointments produced by this system are also notorious.
While corruption continues to grow like a galloping cancer in every branch of life, the judges seem to reciprocate by producing a strange jurisprudence that only protects the corrupt. The law of contempt and the difficulties of proving judicial corruption deter cautious lawyers. But the common man, not so inhibited, produces an impressive volume of popular corruption folklore.

The real decline of judicial character started in 1973. Mohan Kumaramangalam, a distinguished lawyer and politician, claimed that judicial appointments could not be made without reference to the social philosophy of the judges. The judge, being an important decision-maker, makes decisions that are bound to affect the lives of the people, and his decisions are influenced by his social philosophy. Therefore, independent India should have judges who are “committed” not only to the social philosophy of the Constitution, but also to that of the government. This was controversial. However, Indira Gandhi’s government implemented his views during the Emergency.

Though the Kumaramangalam thesis has now been abandoned, its practice continues unabated. While judges associated with the ruling establishment are invariably appointed, those having any form of association with opposition parties are scrupulously avoided. How successive chief justices, who are supposed to be totally judicial even in the discharge of their administrative function, habitually enter into convenient compromises escapes comprehension. The inevitable answer is the creation of a national judicial commission in which the judiciary, government, opposition, the Bar and academic community have an equal voice. Judges should hold office only during the pleasure of the commission. It should have the power to appoint, transfer and dismiss — of course, in accordance with procedure established by law, or what is also known as due process. The Lokpal may well be a useful addition to the list of participants.

The 79th report of the Law Commission suggested ways to plug loopholes in the existing system of appointment of Supreme Court judges. No one should be appointed a judge of the Supreme Court unless, for a period of not less than seven years, he has snapped all affiliations with political parties and unless, during the preceding seven years, he has distinguished himself for his independence, dispassionate approach and freedom from political prejudice.

The practising Bar is the constituency of a judge. If he cannot retain its confidence, he must gracefully quit office. It is just not true that only weak and obliging judges are popular with the Bar. Members of the Bar know the black sheep on the bench. No wonder, the American Bar Association can, by its adverse criticism, make the mighty president of the US withdraw his nominees for judicial office. A lord chancellor of England admitted that if he made an unworthy appointment, he could not possibly look into the eyes of the lawyers at Bar dinners.

The writer, a lawyer and Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan, is a former Union law minister (June 1999-July 2000)