Karnan: a long history of confrontation with colleagues

Documents reveal that many of former HC judge’s peers were so afraid of his threats that they wanted to seek voluntary transfer

Updated - December 03, 2021 05:10 pm IST

Published - June 21, 2017 11:03 pm IST - Chennai

C.S. Karnan being taken by the West Bengal police to Kolkata from the Chennai airport on Wednesday.

C.S. Karnan being taken by the West Bengal police to Kolkata from the Chennai airport on Wednesday.

Allegations of misconduct by Justice C.S. Karnan, who was sent to jail in Kolkata on Wednesday, to serve a six-month prison term for contempt of court, have been recorded in detail by past Chief Justices and Acting Chief Justices of the Madras High Court, where he served between 2009 and 2016.

Mr. Karnan had a long history of confrontation and conflict with his colleagues in the High Court and many of them were so afraid of his threats and harassment that they wanted to seek voluntary transfer to other High Courts.

Copies of correspondence among judges available with The Hindu show that Mr. Karnan was not only accused of repeated harassment of fellow judges and threatening them with prosecution, but also of seeking particular portfolios so that he could deal with “high potential cases.”

Further, there were complaints that he sat over judgments for many months after reserving orders and that he had no respect for court timings.

“He comes and goes as he pleases, sometimes sitting late and many times rising within an hour of sitting,” says a detailed letter from then Chief Justice, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, now a judge of the Supreme Court, on April 22, 2015.

Written complaints

In some cases, Mr. Karnan disposed of the matters after written complaints were brought to his notice.

The letter summarised the charges and complaints against Mr. Karnan. “Inability to get along with any of his colleagues”, “his perception that he is ragged by his colleagues”, “the threats held out by him to other judges,” “abusive language to his own colleagues, including women judges”, “his obsession with particular rosters, considered by him to be ‘high potential cases’” and “grave doubts being raised both on his competence and character”, are some instances of his conduct found in it.


Justice Kaul pointed out the irony in Mr. Karnan threatening one and all with action under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, while his two principal targets (Justice V. Dhanapalan and Justice S. Manikumar) are from a SC community.

In November 2011, Justice Karnan complained to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) that he was being victimised and humiliated by other judges.

The then Chief Justice, M.Y. Eqbal, wrote to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) explaining the developments. He noted that on October 8, 2011, Mr. Karnan made a written request for allotment of work either on the Writ Side or the Criminal Side on a regular basis. He was allotted bail and anticipatory bail portfolio two days later. “However, to my shock and surprise, within a few days of his dealing with Bail and Anticipatory Bail, I received oral complaints that Justice C.S. Karnan had granted bail in sensational cases involving State Ministers for other considerations.” The Chief Justice took back the portfolio only to be confronted by some advocates who took up Mr. Karnan’s cause.

In a letter to the CJI, Chief Justice R.K. Agrawal recorded how on January 8, 2014, Mr. Karnan barged into his chambers and hurled a volley of invectives.

Noting that he was getting complaints about the judge from many other judges and advocates, Justice Agrawal felt Mr. Karnan’s conduct tended to undermine the Chief Justice’s dignity. “In fact, some of my brother judges are afraid of him,” he said, while recommending Mr. Karnan’s transfer out of the Madras High Court at the earliest.


A memorandum signed by 20 judges recounts an incident at an official dinner at the Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy in honour of new Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul. Mr. Karnan first sat in a lounge and started abusing the High Court’s Registrars. Later, he entered the Library Hall, where the judges were waiting, and “started abusing the judges in filthy language.”

They said, “He went on taunting every judge assembled at the dinner meet and challenged them to reply to his unwarranted, unimaginable and unpalatable questions…”

They also recalled that he had misbehaved at a Full Court meeting held when Justice Satish K. Agnihotri was the Acting CJ.

Mr. Karnan also raised issues concerning selection of judges alleging that corruption and favouritism were behind the names being considered. He frequently threatened to file complaints before the NCSC against judges and officials.

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