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Supreme Court Vs Government: Is National Judicial Appointments Commission any better than the collegium?

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Judge

By Harshmeet Singh

The Indian constitution is a unique study in itself. Some of the most unique features of the world’s longest written constitution include the independence of the three pillars of the Indian democracy – legislature, judiciary and the executive. The controversial NJAC (National Judicial Appointments Commission) Amendment Bill is being seen by many as an attempt from the legislature to encroach the turf of the judiciary and snatch its independence. If the recent events are any indication, the judiciary seems in no mood to let go of its rights.

NJAC – What and Why?

Till now, the appointment and transfer of judges to the higher judiciary (Supreme Court and High Courts) was done by a collegium consisting of the Chief Justice of India and the four senior most judges of the Supreme Court. The system of ‘judges appointing judges’ has been in existence for close to 22 years. According to the Government, this system was giving rise to nepotism and ‘favors’.

To overhaul the process of judges’ appointment, the Government has introduced the National Judicial Appointments Commission. The NJAC would be headed by the Chief Justice of India and would have two senior most SC judges, the Law Minister and two ‘eminent persons’ as its other members. These two eminent persons will be appointed by a committee comprising of the Prime Minister, the CJI and the leader of the Opposition. With only 3 of the six NJAC members belonging to the judiciary, this system tries to take away the controlling powers of the judiciary over the appointment of its fellow judges.

What’s the trouble then?

Our constitution makers, perhaps, had the foresight to visualize today’s Government’s love for uncontrolled power. Thus the constitution provides the power of ‘judicial review’ to the Supreme Court. According to this, the apex court can strike down any law if it tries to change the ‘basic structure’ of the constitution or, if the law isn’t in conformity with the constitution itself.

The validity of the 99th Constitutional amendment Act 2014 and the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act have been challenged in the Supreme Court. Bishwajit Bhattacharyya, a former Additional Solicitor General of India, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in January this year, terming the NJAC as ‘direct attack on the independence of judiciary’. In his petition, the former ASG said, “The NJAC Act and amendment of the Constitution are unconstitutional and violate the basic structure of India’s Constitution, as various clauses stipulated therein make a frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary as also on the doctrine of separation of powers,” Since then, the matter is in the Supreme Court and the formation of NJAC is still pending.

Close to five months into the hearing of PIL, no side is ready to put the guard down. Last week, the honourable Supreme Court termed the act as ‘unworkable’. The Government, on the other hand, responded by reminding the Supreme Court that since the President has already signed on the bill, the collegium system stands scrapped. Now, if the Supreme Court terms the act as ‘void’, there would neither be a collegium nor any NJAC! While the proceedings go on in the court, Supreme Court has tried to justify the collegium system, saying that it has “limited but sufficient transparency”. The Supreme Court, in fact, has asked the Government to furnish details about the persons with “doubtful integrity” that have been appointed by the collegium in the past.

The constitutional bench, comprising of 5 judges, said, “It (collegium) is not a closed door system, but to throw it open to all and sundry would invite a lot of representations. It still cannot be said that it is not transparent. Just because there have been mistakes here and there does not mean the system is inconsistent or bad.”

The Chief Justice, H L Dattu, has also declined to be a part of the committee which would appoint two ‘eminent persons’  as members of the NJAC, citing that the constitutional validity of the NJAC is still in question. While the Supreme Court is trying to convince the government to turn back to the collegium system, the fact remains that a number of provisions in the NJAC act violate the constitution in their present form.

Eminent persons – Who? How?

The act fails to prescribe any specific procedure or qualification requirements for the appointment of two ‘eminent persons’. While the existence of NJAC itself is based on efforts to do away with the arbitration of judicial appointments by the collegium, the arbitrariness in the appointment of these two members of the NJAC is extremely glaring. These appointments are left to the discretion of the Prime Minister, CJI and the leader of the opposition.

Is the role of executive in judiciary justified?

According to the numbers furnished by the National Litigation Policy of 2010, there are close to 3 crore cases pending in the country. In more than 70% of these cases, the Government is one of the parties involved. In such a scenario, how advisable would it be to give the executive and legislative a say in the appointment of judges to the highest court in the land?

Veto power

One of the provisions in the act says that any two members of the NJAC can veto any appointment. This, again, is an arbitrary provision in the act with no specific directions. The veto powers can be exercised by any two members without any criteria. Such provisions, in fact, go against the democratic values of the country. This provision implies that for any appointment, at least five of the total six members would have to give their consent. So, in other words, there must be an 83.33% majority for any appointment to go through. This number is even higher than the majority needed in the Parliament (67%) for passing critical laws.

The Government seems to be resorting to every trick in the book to get this act through to the National gazette. But it must understand that if the collegium system was arbitrary, the NJAC doesn’t seem to have finely polished corners either.

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Adultery Law Gets Scrapped: Another Progressive Step In India

Misra is stepping down as chief justice next week when he turns 65, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges. 

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India
A gardener works on the lawns of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, Aug. 22, 2017. India's Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has presided over a string of verdicts in recent weeks that grant more rights to women, gay couples and religious minorities as he prepares to retire from the bench next month. VOA

The chief justice of  Supreme Court of India has presided over a string of recent rulings that grant more rights to women, gay couples and religious minorities, challenging deeply conservative Indian society before he retires next month.

In the latest decision Thursday, Chief Justice Dipak Misra and the rest of the five-member court struck down a 158-year-old law that treated adultery in certain cases as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

The court called the law, which did not allow wives to prosecute adulterous husbands, unconstitutional and noted that a “husband is not the master of woman.” Adultery can still be grounds for divorce in India, the verdict said, but a criminal penalty violated women’s protection to equal rights under the law.

Accolades for ruling

The verdict was hailed by activists and left-of-center members of India’s Parliament.

“Excellent decision,” tweeted Sushmita Dev, a lawmaker and president of the opposition Congress party’s women’s wing. She said “a law that does not give women the right to sue her adulterer husband … is unequal treatment and militates against her status as an individual.”

India
Participants displays a rainbow flag and cheer as gay rights activists and their supporters march during a gay pride parade in New Delhi, India. VOA

Amnesty International India said the decision was “a progressive judgment” and the old law was a “remnant of a time when a woman was considered to be the property of her husband.”

The scrapped law allowed men to file charges against other men who had affairs with their wives. Women having affairs could not be prosecuted, but they also couldn’t file a complaint against cheating husbands.

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Gay couples, religious minorities

Earlier this month, the Misra-led court also struck down a colonial-era law that made gay sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The 1861 law, a relic of Victorian England that hung on long after the end of British colonialism, was “a breach of the rights of privacy and dignity,” the court ruled. It added that “history owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries.”

On Thursday, the court also decided not to reconsider a 1994 decision that would have delayed proceedings in a case over the ownership of the site of a mosque that Hindu hard-liners demolished in 1992.

India
Indian Muslim women talk while walking through a market in Ahmadabad, India. VOA

Fast pace for India

The court’s recent pace of decisions speaks to another feature of Misra’s tenure: expediting cases in a country where they routinely take decades to resolve.

There are 33 million court cases pending in India, government figures show.

Misra is stepping down as chief justice next week when he turns 65, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges.

Also Read: What Would Be The Outcome of The Judgement on Homosexuality with BJP at The Centre?

He joined India’s highest court in 2011. His 13-month tenure as chief justice has won him accolades from advocates of disadvantaged groups but drawn unprecedented criticism from other members of the bench.

In January, the four most senior justices held a news conference against Misra, who as chief justice controls the court’s roster and decides who will take which cases, listing a litany of problems that they said afflicted the court and risked undermining India’s democracy. Misra met with the dissenting judges, who continued on the bench. (VOA)