Is judiciary relevant? : Justice J Chelameswar

After leading an unprecedented press conference of senior SC judges against CJI Dipak Misra in January, Justice J Chelameswar has sought a debate with all his colleagues in the SC on ‘relevance of judiciary’ after accusing the Centre and a ‘loyal’ Karnataka chief justice Dinesh Maheswari of bypassing the SC to attempt scuttling the appointment of a HC judge.

Justice Chelameswar has written a five-page letter to the CJI and the other 22 SC judges, venting his disappointment and shock that Justice Maheswari, at the biding of the law ministry, sought to improperly reopen a sexual harassment complaint against judicial officer P Krishna Bhat, despite being cleared of charges by the then CJI in 2016, ahead of being recommended as an HC judge.

“Surprisingly, the government selectively withheld Bhat’s elevation and accepted the remaining five though all five are junior to him,” Justice Chelameswar said. “The Karnataka CJ has been more than willing to do the executive bidding, behind our (SC collegium’s) back,” he said.

He slammed the law ministry’s recent practice of selectively acting on the recommendations of the collegium, a system against which he had recorded a strong dissent in the famous NJAC judgment in October 2015. He said: “For some time, our unhappy experience has been that the government accepting our recommendations is an exception and sitting on them is the norm.”

“Inconvenient but able judges or to be judges are being bypassed through this route,” he said. The Centre has been sitting on the collegium’s January 11 recommendations for appointment of Uttarakhand chief justice K M Joseph and senior advocate Indu Malhotra as judges of the SC.

Justice Chelameswar made stinging comments on the law ministry for directly sending an ‘improper and contumacious’ letter to the HC CJ, bypassing the SC. He said: “The Chief Justice (Maheswari), establishing himself to be more loyal than the King, acts on it (law ministry’s letter), convenes a meeting of the administrative committee, and decides to reinvestigate the issue, thus burying the previous chief justice’s findings on the same issue, given at our asking.”

“We only have to look forward to the time, which may not be far-off if not already there, when the executive directly communicates with the high courts about the pending cases and what orders to be passed. We can be happy that much of our burden is taken away. An honourable chief justice like Dinesh Maheswari may perhaps be ever willing to do the executive bidding, because good relations with the other branches is a proclaimed constitutional objective... Let us not forget that bonhomie between the judiciary and the government in any state sounds death-knell to democracy. We both are mutual watchdogs, so to say, not mutual admirers, much less constitutional cohorts,” he said.

The January 12 press conference at Justice Chelameswar’s residence, by him and three senior judges, had targeted the CJI for allotting hearing on petitions seeking an independent probe into judge B H Loya’s death in alleged suspicious circumstances in Nagpur in 2014 to a ‘junior judge’ and the alleged attempt to give a ‘particular judge’ serious cases of national importance for a verdict favourable to the Centre. The ‘junior judge’ later recused himself from hearing petitions on Loya, but not before giving vent to his ire against the four seniors in a meeting of SC judges.

Justice Chelameswar had earlier set the bells ringing by unilaterally constituting a five judge bench, a power vested only with the CJI, for hearing of a medical scam. Both Loya case and the medical scam issue have found mention in the draft removal motion being prepared for tabling in Parliament by lawyer-politicians in the opposition.

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