That all was not well with the Justice delivery system in subordinate judiciary was too well known to the litigants, lawyers and others familiar with the functioning of these courts where 2.3 crore cases are pending. But few, except the judges and members of the bar, were aware of the internal rot and wranglings in the highest temple of justice in the country.
That lid was taken off on Friday when four senior-most judges of Supreme Court made public their differences with the Chief Justice of India. For the common man, the unprecedented public display of the animosity, came as a rude shock. Among all the three pillars of democracy, judiciary has been held in the highest esteem and a question mark over the credibility of the apex court is something that was unthinkable and totally avoidable.
The judiciary itself has been very sensitive and protective about any attempt to degenerate it. Till a few years ago it had been strictly enforcing the law concerning contempt of courts which provided that even truth was no defence when it came to defaming or lowering the dignity of courts. Subsequently the law was amended to provide that establishment of truth could be a defence in contempt cases.
Even after the amendment of the law, media and other sections of the society had been taking care not to denigrate or lower the dignity of judiciary. There had been exceptional incidents involving senior judges, like the recent case of Justice Dinakaran who was jailed for levelling allegations against Supreme Court judges or the allegations of corruption against Justice Ramaswamy who was sought to be impeached. Some judges had also come under a shadow when they were named in the suicide note left behind by former Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Kalikho Pul last year.
It was always known that most lawyers go for “bench hunting” and try to file cases after examining rosters. It is also a fact that many litigants would prefer relatives of judges or others ‘close’ to particular judges to represent them. There have also been occasions when senior judges had indicted juniors for giving incorrect judgments and for distorting facts.
However it is for the first time that the institution as a whole has come under a cloud with the four senior-most judges going public with their grievances against the Chief Justice of India. The decision must have come after due deliberation and perhaps as the very last resort. The tipping point was certainly the selective appointment of judges to hear the case involving the mysterious death of CBI Special judge Brijgopal Harikishan Loya. He was hearing a sensitive case involving, among others, BJP chief Amit Shah. The case pertained to the alleged staged encounter of suspected terrorist Sohrabuddin Sheikh.
Undoubtedly the case is highly sensitive in nature and has become the talk of the town with common man discussing the motives behind handing over the case to selected judges. The general feeling among the litigants and others is that if this kind of manipulation could take place in the top court, what must be happening in the middle and subordinate judiciary.
There were indications of a storm building up in Supreme Court two months ago when Justice Chelameswar had directed constitution of a five member bench to hear a petition in which Chief Justice Dipak Misra’s name had also figured. It pertained to alleged corruption in a case relating to a private medical college involving a high court judge. The Chief Justice had subsequently constituted a five judge bench which had upturned the directive on the ground that CJI alone was the “Master of roster”.
The four judges have not questioned the prerogative of the CJI to appoint members of benches but they have said he must follow conventions and norms in constitution of such benches and should not take arbitrary decisions to pick and choose ‘convenient’ judges.
The ongoing crisis arising out of the controversy over appointment of judges to hear and decide on critical issues has hit the credibility of the institution very hard. The highest court of the land was one institution that was above suspicion for millions of citizens.
While the action of the four judges in going public is debatable, with some calling it a courageous stand and others saying it should have been avoided, the fact is that the credibility of institution has taken a big hit as far as the common man is concerned. Judges, like Sita, have to be above suspicion.