The word ‘Representative Bench’ got a new meaning when Justice P. Sathasivam, who hails from an agricultural family, took over as the Chief Justice of India on July 19, 2013. He is a stickler for discipline and punctuality. Senior advocate Fali Nariman has given a 90 per cent rating for his performance. After a successful tenure of nine and half months, he is demitting office on April 26. Here are excerpts from an hour-long interview with J. Venkatesan.
Mr. Justice Sathasivam, you rose to the highest position as Chief Justice of India from a humble background. Are you satisfied with your overall performance?
Totally, I spent eighteen and half years in the High Courts, including about seven years in this Court. [I was the] first graduate in the family as well as in my village, Kadappanallur, in Erode district of Tamil Nadu. I did not take a single day’s leave during my tenure as a High Court judge and only one day’s leave as a Supreme Court judge. I am satisfied with my performance, particularly, during the short tenure of nine months as CJI.
In my period as CJI, appointment of four judges in the Supreme Court, six Chief Justices and 89 judges in the High Courts took place. As on April 1, the percentage of vacancies at High Court level in the country came down to 28 per cent. It was 30 per cent when I began my tenure as CJI. The first National Lok Adalat was held in the history of the Supreme Court in November wherein we successfully disposed of 71.78 lakh cases.
Did you get any feedback on the performance of judges?
As far as discipline and punctuality are concerned, there is no dispute that judiciary at all levels is maintaining the same. One or two exceptions may be there. In my view, not only the Supreme Court but all courts in India must utilise time judiciously.
As far as non-delivery of judgments, generally all the judges are delivering judgments/orders as soon as possible.
Have your efforts in clearing mounting arrears of cases and filling up of vacancies yielded the desired results?
When I took over the office of Chief Justice, the pending matters were 67,964 and now it is 63,625. Special emphasis was given for disposal of Constitution Bench matters. In the intervening period of nine and half months, ten Constitution Bench matters were disposed of. These could have been much higher but for the fact that there is phenomenal increase in filing of cases as compared to the rate of disposal.
During your tenure, the Supreme Court had the full strength of 31 judges for a brief period. Were you able to fulfil your promise of adequate representation to all communities? For the last four years there is no representation from the SC community, who feel let down. There is no representation for Madhya Pradesh and Haryana as well.
Immediately on assuming office of the Chief Justice of India, in July, I addressed a communication to Chief Justices of all the High Courts to take steps for filling up the posts of High Court judges against existing as well as anticipated vacancies. While emphasising the desirability of giving appropriate representation to members of SCs/STs/OBCs and other unrepresented communities, minorities and women, the Chief Justices of High Courts were requested to consider relaxing age, income and other criteria to the otherwise deserving candidates belonging to these sections of the society but at the same time without compromising on the prescribed qualifications and expected standard.
During my tenure, with the cooperation of my colleagues, I tried my level best to give representation to Madhya Pradesh and Haryana but it could not materialise before my retirement.
There is criticism about the procedure followed for appointment of judges; that there is no transparency in the collegium system. Will the setting up of a National Judicial Commission (NJC) solve the problem?
According to me, the present collegium system compared to the alternative suggested is preferable. Even in the existing system, the States and Centre get the opportunity to express their views.
Further, my personal view is that meaningful consultation should take place with more judges, meaning thereby, the consultation is not only within the collegium judges but also with others who are well conversant with the persons to be selected. As the judges in the collegium are familiar with the performance, capacity and area of specialisation of the persons to be selected, this is a better system than the NJC.
Do you feel the need to create a National Court of Appeal and Supreme Court Benches in four regions will help in reducing arrears?
A National Court of Appeal is not required at this juncture because the Supreme Court is connected all over the country owing to technological advancements. People send case papers, filing petitions/appeals to the Supreme Court by e-mail and all orders/proceedings of the Court available on the same day on the website of the Court.
During your tenure how did you tackle corruption, if any, in the judiciary? Is there an instance of initiating disciplinary action against errant judges?
Insofar as subordinate judiciary, mechanism is provided to deal with complaints under the control of the Chief Justice of the High Court. As for complaints against judges of the High Courts, an in-house mechanism is in operation which considers the complaints against judges and wherever required, the same are being sent to the Chief Justice of the High Court for inquiry and to the judge concerned for his response before being considered by the competent authority. Specific complaints received against certain High Court judges were forwarded to the Chief Justice of the High Court concerned and enquiries were conducted but most of the complaints could not be proved as they were vague allegations.
There is criticism of judicial overreach in certain decisions. How do you react to this?
It depends upon the facts of each case. Certain events have to be considered by the High Courts and if it relates to national interest, the Supreme Court can entertain. However, all the three constitutional functionaries, the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary must be aware of their boundaries and limitations. I agree to some extent there was judicial overreach in certain instances, which should be avoided.
Even judges have expressed dissatisfaction over the manner in which the sexual harassment complaint against former judge A.K. Ganguly was handled when the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to deal with such cases. What is your justification?
Since the matter is sub-judice, I am not commenting on it. I can only say that when Justice Ganguly came here to depose before the fact-finding committee, he was treated with dignity and all courtesies were extended to him.
The Judges Inquiry Bill is pending in Parliament. Is there any reservation about the CJI being covered under this Bill?
It is the prerogative of the legislature to enact legislation. We can test it whether it is subject to judicial scrutiny. I can only say that the Constitution has provided independence of judiciary and there should not be any interference.
What are your views on making regional languages as the court language?
In my view, there is no difficulty in implementing the regional language as court language at the subordinate courts level. Even for this, the respective State Governments have to provide necessary infrastructure. But as far as its implementation in the High Court is concerned, the bar, judiciary and government must sit together and find a way out.