In sharp criticism of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) judgment which revived the Supreme Court collegium, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Sunday that at the core of the verdict is the judiciary’s distrust in the capability of the Law Minister and the Prime Minister to appoint a “fair judge.”
“The people of India trust the Prime Minister with the obligation to secure the unity and integrity of India. As I once said in the Parliament, the Prime Minister possesses the nuclear button... that’s how much the people trust him. The Prime Minister through his Ministers can do so much work, yet the Prime Minister through the Law Minister cannot be trusted to have a fair judge appointed is a question ... Some day we trust the judiciary and the polity of the country will look into this,” Mr. Prasad said in his address at the valedictory function of the Law Day celebrations.
Mr. Prasad said a “very loaded statement” has been made by the Supreme Court in the NJAC judgment if it thinks that the mere association of the Law Minister in the Commission would lead to appointments of a “doubtful” character.
Trust in PM
Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra responded to Mr. Prasad by pointedly saying that the judiciary reposed as much trust in a popularly elected PM as the public does. “The Prime Minister is the repository of constitutional trust... Trust is reposed in the Prime Minister. That is the language of the Constituent Assembly and we are not going to add anything. We also repose the same trust in the Honourable Prime Minister,” Chief Justice Misra said.
Under the now struck down Article 124A of the Constitution, the Law Minister was an ex officio member of the NJAC and the Prime Minister was part of the three-member panel which nominated the two eminent persons to the NJAC, which was meant to give the political class an equal say in judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and the High Courts.
In the gathering at Vigyan Bhawan was former Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar, who authored the majority judgment in the NJAC case in October 2015.
Though repeatedly saying that the government respects the NJAC verdict, Mr. Prasad asked why doubts were raised in the judgment about the Prime Minister’s role in appointing a fair judge when the Constitution had already given him the “principal player” role in the appointments of the President, the Vice-President, the three Armed Forces chiefs, the Chief Election Commissioner and other constitutional bodies.
“Many things we have accepted with mutual respect. We are absolutely conscious where we can intervene and where we cannot. One institution should not claim supremacy over the other,” Chief Justice Misra said as Prime Minister Narendra Modi watched on from the dais.
But Mr. Prasad continued to be on the offensive, calling for “greater scrutiny, greater screening in judicial appointments and a greater pool from which selection can be made for judicial appointments.”
Mr. Prasad cited the case of the jailed Calcutta HC judge C.S. Karnan as an example of how the Supreme Court collegium has failed. “The Supreme Court sent a sitting judge (Karnan) to jail for contempt. He was an appointee of the collegium. When I went through the records, I found to my dismay that the then collegium had found him well-versed in all branches of law... Obviously, he was not well-versed in contempt law,” Mr. Prasad said, tongue-in-cheek.
The Karnan case should compel the collegium to do an “audit” of its performance.
“Since 1993, the collegium has appointed judges...Is an audit required on ‘what have we lost? What we have gained? Why did we make such appointments?’” Mr. Prasad asked.