In the chronicles of aberrant behaviour by judges, Justice C.S. Karnan of the Madras High Court would occupy one of the most prominent spots. Few judges have by their conduct within and outside the court damaged the standing of the judiciary to this degree or exposed the helplessness of the system in dealing with over-the-top functioning. The judge now appears to have crossed all bounds, and his understanding of the law is such that he takes up the case of his own transfer to the Calcutta High Court and “stays” the recommendation of the Chief Justice of India. This is just the latest instance of his ways that have included, even as a sitting judge, his going into the court when a Division Bench was hearing a petition on the selection of judges and seeking to file an affidavit opposing the list of appointees recommended by the Chief Justice. His interaction with other judges in the High Court was found to be so offensive that 21 of them signed a petition of complaint and a Chief Justice of the High Court was constrained to send a formal communication to the Chief Justice of India seeking his transfer. To top it all, the Madras High Court registry had to file a petition in the Supreme Court of India after he had passed a suo motu order “staying” the recommendation of the Chief Justice of India transferring him and get his order stayed. That he has frequently raised the issue of his caste status — complaining to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and even threatening to file criminal charges under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against chief justices and other judges — in justification of his conduct, has only served to trivialise the issue of caste discrimination and the genuine difficulties that Dalits face.
It is inconceivable that so long a rope would have been given to any judge in a well-ordered democracy functioning under the rule of law. It was almost two years ago that the Supreme Court condemned Justice Karnan’s conduct in seeking to argue in another court as “uncharitable and ungenerous, and … indecorous.” Yet, he was allowed to continue with his ways, each subsequent episode marking a new low. While his initial selection is itself testimony to the weakness of the collegium system of appointments, the Karnan episode has brought to light the inadequacies of the judicial system in keeping its own house in order. Impeachment is one option, but if a judge facing impeachment chooses to brazen it out rather than resign, it goes before Parliament where political considerations come into play. Short of impeachment, very few effective measures seem to be available. Even the remedy of transfer now being applied would only shift the problem to another high court, though by removing him out of his familiar circle of friends and supporters it may serve to mute it. The most that can be said of the transfer is that it is better than doing nothing.