The govt has, for all practical purposes, final veto over the appointment of judges.
Judges of High Courts across the country and the Supreme Court are appointed by a ‘collegium’ consisting of the Chief Justice of India and four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court. This system was a creature of three judgments passed by the Supreme Court, popularly known as the Three Judges Cases. In 2014 the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act and the Constitution (Ninety-Ninth Amendment) Act, 2014 were passed by Parliament, thus replacing the collegium system with a commission comprising of 3 Supreme Court Judges, the Union Minister of Law and Justice, and two ‘eminent persons’. Suffice to say that the NJAC act was a horrible legislation that claimed that the collegium system gave excessive and unchecked power to the judiciary and to remedy this, the act simply gave unchecked and excessive power (over the appointment of judges) to the Parliament.
One of the many common threads running through the Three Judges Cases and the NJAC case was the question that in the event the executive and the court reach a deadlock over a prospective appointee, which organ of the state will get primacy (final veto)? This is a question not just about a procedural conflict, but also one deeply impacting independence of the judiciary. Why is the independence of the judiciary important? Because it keeps the Parliament and the Executive in check and protects citizens from excesses by these organs. Various cases decided by the Supreme Court, including the NJAC case, concluded that independence of the judiciary could not be achieved without judicial primacy over the appointment of judges. In the NJAC case, the Supreme Court held that since independence of the judiciary is an un-amendable feature (part of the basic structure) of the Constitution of India and since this independence cannot be achieved without judicial primacy over appointment of judges, a law which takes away this primacy (the NJAC act) is unconstitutional and is therefore struck down.
The judgment in the NJAC case, however, concluded by saying that the government should draft a Memorandum of Procedure (MOP) to suggest changes in the collegium system and that M.O.P would be vetted by the apex court. This was most bizarre because the changes the government wanted to suggest were being reflected in the NJAC Act. Secondly, why did the Supreme Court not bring about these ‘changes’ and ‘reforms’ in the process of deciding the case, or in the final judgment passed by the court? Your guess is as good as mine. The Union Government, which initially seemed to be reluctant to participate in this exercise, enthusiastically began the process and a to-and-fro over the MOP began. There was much that the judiciary and the government disagreed over.
Meanwhile (presumably a tactic of the government to pressurise the court) appointment of judges to various courts was more or less put on hold by the government much to the anguish, at least of the previous Chief Justice of India, T.S. Thakur, who reportedly broke down in tears over the government’s obstruction and arrogance.
One of the many clauses that were the subject of this deadlock over the MOP was the ‘national security’ clause. The government wanted a veto to reject any judges if it felt ‘national security’ was at risk. This assessment of the government was not open for discussion. The 87th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice said that this clause was a bad idea and tantamount to a veto being given to the government. Thakur said as much and expressed concern that this clause would be misused by governments. Ravi Shankar Prasad reportedly gave assurances in Parliament that the government was not seeking a veto.
According to a report in the Times of India, the deadlock over this clause has suddenly been resolved, and the court has conceded with the caveat that the government must give reasons for rejecting someone under the clause. This may look like a compromise at first glance, but the fact is that the government now has the final veto over appointment of judges. This development is contrary to the judgment of the Supreme Court itself in the Second Judges Case and the NJAC case (and therefore violative of the constitution). What was the point of long disputes over decades and especially the entire NJAC case if, finally, primacy was to be given to the executive? We are now in a bizarre situation in which a lengthy, detailed judgment was passed only for a MOP to go against the said judgment, all behind closed doors. There is no provision in the constitution of India which allows for judgments to be altered in this manner. Will this now become a custom? Each time the government is upset with a case, will it be allowed to have closed door discussions with the court, which will end in the judgment being changed? Another fact that casts a shadow over the matter is allegations of corruption against certain judges of the SC (among others) made by Kalikho Pul, the former CM of Arunachal Pradesh, in his suicide note. In an ideal world, all judges named should have recused from all work, including drafting of the M.O.P. We don’t live in an ideal world. The summary is that once again, we have been thoroughly and collectively betrayed by all the organs of the state.
This article was first published in The Mumbai Mirror