Rebel Supreme Court judges should not be elevated: Venkataramana

Pamarty Venkataramana is a respected legal luminary and life-member of the Supreme Court of India Bar Association. He is an expert on constitutional, corporate and criminal jurisprudence subjects and finds time for guest-lectures, essays and spiritual poetry.  Fondly called ‘PVR’, he talks about the ongoing crisis in the judiciary. Excerpts of interview:

How morally correct it was for those four SC judges going public with the accusation against the CJI? 

The sequence of events and chain of actions speak for themselves! The Nation remembers well that Karnan.J was imprisoned for very similar conduct which was deemed to be – ‘contempt of court’ .

Why are the Left parties and the Congress endorsing this Press conference and targeting CJI and expressing doubts about the administration of SC? Is it because Chief Justice Deepak Mishra heading the bench that’s hearing the Ram Mandir dispute? 

It is definitely an unfortunate episode that has tarnished the reputation of the all-important institution of judiciary. Now, political parties must act responsibly. Personal agenda cannot become paramount over best national interests.

What is the existing law for appointing the judges as per the constitution of India? Does the government has any role to play in the appointment of judges?

It was envisaged in the Constitution that the Chief Justice of India shall appoint the judges to the Supreme Court in consultation with the government. However, a Collegium system crept into the whole process where few senior-most judges of the apex court decide over list received from the establishment. However, as on date, only the Collegium prevails in the matter of selecting judges. This sadly is the best system until a system better than the Collegium emerges. So, today the government has no role in picking and choosing judges of the Supreme Court.

How the expectations from the judiciary to safeguard the rights of the citizens of this country can be ensured? 

Through selection of good judges and early disposal of pending cases. Also, justice must not only seem to be done but also done in each & every matter.

Do you think Collegium system is better than NJAC for judicial appointments? And why there is so much of fuss about the collegium system? 

Until a better and foolproof system is evolved, this remains the best bet before the country . After all, it is only these judges who witness performance and calibre of lawyers in court halls day in & day out to judge suitability as Supreme Court Judges. None else can estimate this. Certainly not officials seated in n Law Ministry cubicles based on paper perceptions or recommendations from Chief Ministers and other politicians.

Do you feel that judiciary is not untouched by corruption? If so, do you have any solution?

A very sensitive issue as it is most difficult to assess corruption in the judiciary. How does one define this? Can bail be granted for bribe or even be denied for alleged illegal gratification? How does one establish that there was the social monster of corruption when the apex court opened its doors for a midnight hearing to decide on death for a death row terrorist-convict or a bail via phone for an activist connected in the corridors of political power? If there are a hundred cases being heard on a given day, a hundred denials would be there: so, scope exists for all 100 who lost their case to cry foul and scream -‘corruption!’. However, the possibility of incidence of corruption in judiciary can be eliminated by adopting a two-fold strategy: One- by simplification of laws. Be clear in the statute book about what is right and what is wrong. Leave not any scope for the exercise of ‘discretionary powers’ by the judge. Two- by fixing a time-limit for disposal of cases,irrespective of who the parties are and type of litigation. This already exists on statute-books but hardly anyone appears to adhere to the set time-frame. Tighten this rule.

What about a judicial accountability Bill? With the shoot-and-scoot episode of the four Supreme Court judges, do you think this is the right time to fast-forward the Bill?

More than this approach, let there be an urgent repealing of antiquated laws and updated laws exist. At least one-third of cases flooding the court rooms of our country pertain to bounced cheques. What is the nature of this category of litigation? ‘You have issued a cheque but not paid me the amount. Right?

Aren’t we a tech-savvy nation today? So, let there be a law that stipulates that only up to five lakhs of rupees can be issued by a cheque and anything over that be by way of online-transfer! Won’t all such frivolous matters be thrown out of court at once? Such an anomalous litigation spree would not happen in this land again. After all population takes to the habit of digital transfers, this limit can be curtailed to a mere one lakh of rupees!

Likewise, other frontiers exist where the government can actually bring back the situation to what it was even four decades ago – of judges literally spending more time on reading law texts and writing treatises than being tortured along with the litigants and advocates, with a over-burdened , thankless lifestyle.

Any specific hardship faced by judiciary on account of technology- era?

Video conferencing has become a boon to many undertrials. More than that, a real problem has been the non-functioning of MCA-21 portal affecting hundreds of practitioners such as corporate lawyers, Company secretaries, CAs as well as businesses. Unless there is a robust technological back-up, no amount of reforms on bringing in Foreign investments for projects in India or announcements made about a comprehensive new company law can help in national growth or wiping out agony of the judiciary.

What do you think has been the biggest outcome of the Press conference?

The ugly incident has definitely tarnished their individual reputation as well as denigrated the institution of judiciary. After all, neither the reporters nor the members of the general public can do anything about an internal tiff among brother-judges. Even the government cannot do anything about it. Hence, an ill-advised move. Publicity was adverse to their intention as it seems today.

How would you have advised the four judges?

This is neither the first time differences could have arisen among brother -judges nor the last occasion when there could be real differences of opinion. All are capable gentry and supposedly belong to the cream of our society. Ego clashes can be better handled than washing dirty linen in the backyard. If children in a family squabble, they go the parents seeking resolution. But if the parents themselves have a tiff, do they go to the children or sort things out by talking it out in closed doors?

What is your suggestion for making the Supreme Court more formidable an Institution?

Many elders and retired chief justices have also expressed a similar opinion. I have written at length too about this. Let there be five regional Benches constituted which shall hear routine appellate matters pertaining to the zone-wise jurisdiction. The main seat will remain at New Delhi which shall address only matters requiring examination of principles of jurisprudence and constitution. This will greatly reduce waiting time of litigants approaching the temple of justice for succour and vindication of their stand.

Is it proper for the Supreme Court to go on such long vacations?

The tradition dates back to the British era when the judges to sail by ship to visit their homeland and return to duties in India. The journey was long. The duration of court vacations may be shortened in this age when it is only a few hours to travel anywhere on the planet. In a lighter vein though may I suggest that personnel in the other sectors too be given a paid vacation to help refresh their minds?  Let there be more number of courts constituted to deal with the backlog. Allow technology to assist litigants in obtaining copies of deposition speedily, free of cost and without any burden of using middlemen. These are all public documents.

The trend of PILs must halt. Scrutiny be rigid. These are noticed to be frivolous, motivated and filed to garner attention to otherwise inept folk.

Do you think Amit Shah would have been a culprit in death of Justice Loya?

Absolutely not. Why would Amit ji need to commit a crime at all? He’s a peace-loving national leader of responsibility and manners. Besides, even assuming a Bollywood – Tollywood movie-style plot process, anybody placed in that situation will try to bump off a witness to go scot-free rather than killing a judge. Won’t there be another judge succeeding a deceased judge? There are many such media trial cases wherein the witnesses were dead and accused released for want of vital evidence. In Justice Loya’s instance, his family members have confirmed him to have been a heart-patient.

Will it be right for a judge who participated in such an odd Press conference to seek elevation as chief justice one day on claims of being the senior most in the Supreme Court?

No. He or she forfeited the right to that exalted position. Why? Since nobody or body can undo an order passed by the Chief Justice of India, even a perverse ruling can inflict much harm on the nation and its ethos. The President of India would do well to notice this fact in the near future.

Was the Chief Justice Deepak Mishra right in not allotting duties to certain judge or judges as alleged?

It is the absolute privilege of the Chief Justice to handle roster and allot duties as he deems fit and best suited. None can murmur. This has always been the practice before and after independence of India. So, he was certainly right on this issue. It was absurd for the four gentlemen judges to go to public via Press-folks.

Why is Collegium despised even by few judges?

It is only the Chief Justice who would be having access and privy to personal files of all aspirants and candidates to be chosen by the Collegium. Rest are only members of the select committee of judges.

Is there a way out for the government to overcome the nixed NJAC Bill?

Certainly. A suitably amended NJAC Bill can be re-introduced in Parliament. But, may I remind that only a judge can best assess suitability of a lawyer to be anointed as a judge of the apex court. Others are unsuited since personal prejudices will crop in – such as when a litigant chooses his advocate to fight a case in court of law. Often times, it’s only based upon hearsay and perceptions.

Is Indian judiciary at peril?

Not at all. We are a free country. Most judges are the most hard-working lot. Even at the lowest of hierarchy. It is only a spirit of kindness, compassion and a judicious application of mind which determines whether a judge is a ‘good’ judge or not. Common sense and compassion are basic special qualities needed for the opposite advocates shall feed the court about facts, evidence and precedents governing a case-matter. There must be special ways devised to catch the black sheep of course. Judiciary becomes strong under our three-pillared Constitutional set-up whenever an elected Government becomes weak in addressing matters of justice.