Just days after he informed Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur of his decision to skip the meetings of the Supreme Court Collegium till the highest judiciary ushers in transparency, Supreme Court judge Justice Jasti Chelameswar on Sunday said he took the stand solely for the cause of transparency and was not fighting for any personal gain.
Dressed casually in a white shirt and black trousers, Justice Chelameswar was about to start his evening walk when The Hindu caught up with him. As a Collegium member and the lone dissenting judge on the Constitution Bench which scrapped the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) law and upheld the two-decades-old Collegium system of judges appointing judges, Justice Chelameswar’s dissent is as historic as it is revealing of the Collegium’s opacity.
His letter revealed that even certain members of the Collegium were themselves unaware of the basis on which judicial appointments were made.
“There is nothing personal in my stand. Let judicial appointments be made on some objective criteria. The judiciary should evolve a procedure for bringing in transparency in appointments after having rejected both the government’s arguments and rescinded a parliamentary law on NJAC,” Justice Chelameswar said.
“This is a principled stand. Not a fight for any personal gain. In less than two years I am going to retire. I will not look up to anyone for any post-retirement jobs. I will not be seen around working for this Commission or that. I have no personal agenda nor is there anything personal in my objection to the way the Collegium is functioning,” Justice Chelameswar said.
Need for records The fifth seniormost judge in the Supreme Court, Justice Chelameswar's stand is that there should be some record of the Collegium’s proceedings. The record should contain the basis on which High Court judges are transferred or names are rejected for appointment as judges. A procedure has to be evolved at the highest level for holding Collegium meetings, he said.
Though they struck down the NJAC, even the four majority judges on the Constitution Bench had found the need to improve the Collegium system. They had gone on to invite public opinion. The Bench was flooded with 15000 letters in a matter of two months from October to December 2015.
Justice Chelameswar's letter has comes at a time when the number of High Court vacancies have touched 485.
“I will go through the Collegium files in my chambers and convey my opinion, which has been the practice. But I will not go and attend the Collegium meetings,” Justice Chelameswar explained.
Need for debate When asked why he considered the current moment appropriate for voicing his objections about the Collegium, Justice Chelameswar said others raise issues after retirement but he decided to do this now as he was part of the Collegium.
“Let there be a public debate about the issue. The public is the only stakeholder in judicial appointments. How can you keep the whole society out of it?” Justice Chelameswar said.
Asked how the judges of the Supreme Court Collegium, with their work-burden and pendency, could find the time to carefully sift through the names recommended for judgeship and make fool-proof decisions on the candidates, Justice Chelameswar explained how it could be done.
“I will give you an example. Roughly, 150 judges retire annually. It is not very difficult to make an assessment of a new candidate. Now what happens if there is a vacancy for a reporter? You call an aspirant for the job and talk to him. Ask him questions about himself. Same thing can be done here. The candidate can be called here (Delhi). Each Collegium member can spend half an hour with him, talking to him, seeing for themselves his ability to communicate, whether he has a dignified personality, his bearing and conduct. This would take roughly two days and not all 150 vacancies open up at the same time,” Justice Chelameswar illustrated.
He said his point was to evolve a mechanism for a dispassionate analysis in the appointments procedure rather than relying on the advice of a High Court judge. Recommendations of the Supreme Court Collegium should not rely on the prejudices of a local judge in a High Court.
Asked whether there has been any communication from Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur to his letter, Justice Chelameswar replied in the negative.