Wide consultation, rather than the closed-door deliberations of the collegium, is what the Supreme Court and the High Courts need

The decisions of the Supreme Court in the two judges cases in 1993 and 1998 have been criticised because they have not only practically amended the Constitution (which could only have been done by Parliament) by inventing a collegium system unknown to the Constitution, but also because the working of the collegium system has often been found defective. I would, therefore, like to describe my preferred method of recommending names for appointment.

I came to Chennai as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court in November 2004. The sanctioned strength of High Court Judges here was then 49 (60 today). At the time, there were about 23 or 24 vacancies, which meant that about half the posts in the High Court were lying vacant.

I was a total stranger to Tamil Nadu as I had come from Uttar Pradesh. I had been a lawyer in the Allahabad High Court, and thereafter a judge there.

Every institution is really about the personnel manning it. So, a High Court is not really about a beautiful building or beautiful lawns but the judges who man it. They should be first class people in conduct and in legal knowledge. I was determined to recommend good names for appointment as High Court Judges and not bow to pressure.

This was the method I adopted:

I requested a dozen sitting judges of the High Court, in order of seniority, to give me a list of lawyers of the High Court whom they thought deserved to be appointed as High Court judges.

I also requested four or five very senior and respected lawyers of the Madras High Court to give their lists. I also consulted some respected retired judges.

Thus I got about 17 or 18 lists.

I received those lists, and, along with my two senior most colleagues, found certain names to be common in many lists. Enquiries were made even about those names. We also considered some names which were not very common. This exercise went on for two to three months and ultimately there was consensus. It was these names which were recommended for appointment. I then went to Delhi and met the then Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, Mr. Justice Lahoti, and informed him about the methodology I had adopted.

I told him that I had insisted that I would only recommend the names of persons who had a great reputation and good practice, were non-controversial and not too close to any political party (otherwise such persons would not be neutral and impartial). I also referred to what was said by a Lord Chancellor of England (who had then the authority to recommend names for appointment of British High Court judges) that the person whom he would recommend must be a gentleman, and it would do no harm if he knew a little law! (The second part of this sentence should not be taken literally because it is certain that a person to be appointed as a judge must know some law! What I meant was that if a person has put in 20 years as a lawyer, he is bound to know some law. More important, thereafter, is that he should be of high character.)

I told Mr. Justice Lahoti that the methodology that I had adopted was a result of a consensus after wide consultation with about 20 persons including sitting judges, respected retired judges and very senior respected lawyers of the High Court.

Since none of the persons I had recommended was either known to me (except for their performances in cases they argued before me) or belong to my caste or community, I had no personal interest in any such person. Hence it was up to the Supreme Court Collegium to approve or disapprove the names. In any case, I told him, it would not, in any way, bother me if any name was rejected because I had no personal interest.

Ignoring pressure

I must add that certain important people did try to influence me in this connection, but I paid no heed to them as I was determined to do my duty to the Madras High Court, come what may. As a result of that, almost all my recommendations were accepted, and 17 judges were appointed to the Madras High Court in December 2005, a record for that High Court.

In my opinion, the methodology which was adopted by me should also be adopted for making recommendations for appointment of judges in the Supreme Court as well as in all High Courts. The present system, based on the decisions of the Supreme Court in the Judges Case, is defective as there is a lot of subjectivity. In my opinion, the Judges Cases should not be understood to mean that only the five senior most judges of the Supreme Court (three senior most for the High Courts) should be consulted for appointment as Supreme Court and High Court Judges. There should be very wide consultation with at least 15 to 20 people who are highly reputed as judges, former judges, senior lawyers. After this, the consensus which emerges should be recommended.

I was the sixth in seniority in the Supreme Court. But I regret that I was never consulted by the Chief Justice. The five senior most judges met in a highly secretive manner for deciding whom to recommend as a judge of the Supreme Court. This manner severely restricts the inputs which are required for making high quality recommendations. Justice Ms Ruma Pal, former Judge of the Supreme Court, said that deliberations of the collegium are “a complete mystery.” It should not be so in a democracy, where there should be transparency, otherwise allegations are bound to arise, however unfounded, that improper recommendations have been made for extraneous considerations.

I, therefore, recommend to the Chief Justice and to the Chief Justices of all High Courts, that they should follow the same method I adopted for appointment of judges in the Supreme Court and all High Courts, and not limit the consultations to only Collegium members. In my opinion, the decisions of the Supreme Court in the cases of 1993 and 1998 should be understood in their proper perspective, and not in a narrow sense.

(Markandey Katju, a former Chief Justice of the Madras and Delhi High Courts, former Acting Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court and former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, is currently Chairman of the Press Council of India.)

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