The Indian Supreme Court is an extraordinarily powerful institution in the world. It can make and unmake laws; it can keep the executive accountable, and seek to ensure the autonomy of institutions. It can rewrite the Constitution the way it wants, through its creative interpretation yet remain largely unaccountable for its omissions and commissions. Its collegium has the responsibility to choose judges to fill its own vacancies, but it sees little merit in adopting an open and transparent process while exercising it.
As a result, very little is known about the merits of a judge, before he or she is appointed to the Supreme Court, unless there are serious allegations damaging to the judge’s integrity. There is a vast pool of post-retirement jobs that awaits a retiring judge from the Supreme Court, in the form of membership of statutory tribunals and commissions, yet there is no mechanism to evaluate the suitability of former judges to these bodies.
The Government’s proposal to nominate the former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Cyriac Joseph, to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has brought into focus the issue of performance-evaluation of a judge.
While the members representing the Government on the NHRC selection committee appear to have favoured his nomination, the two members belonging to the Opposition, Ms Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Arun Jaitley, have submitted dissenting notes pointing to an adverse report of an intelligence agency about the unsuitability of the proposed nominee on the basis of his tenure at the Supreme Court.
The facts regarding Justice Joseph can be gathered from the Supreme Court’s website.
He authored exactly seven judgments during his tenure, from July 7, 2008 to January 27, 2012. However, he was a signatory to as many as 309 judgments, and 135 orders, all authored by his colleagues on the Bench. The website lists the judgments and the orders authored and/or signed by a judge together, and it requires considerable effort to identify those which were authored and not merely signed by a judge, as the author’s name is affixed on the top of a judgment.
Thus, Justice Joseph authored concurring judgments in two cases, namely, Action Committee, Unaided Private Schools & Ors v. Director of Education & Ors (August 7, 2009), and Haryana State Warehousing Corporation v. Jagat Ram (February 23, 2011). His judgment in the Action Committee, Unaided Private Schools seems to have been necessitated because of the compulsion to resolve the disagreement between the other two judges on the Bench, Justices S.B. Sinha and S.H. Kapadia. Justice Joseph opted to agree with Justice Kapadia in order to help arrive at the ratio of the judgment.
The website also shows that Justice Joseph wrote judgments in Safiya Bee v. Mohd. Vajahath Hussain @ Fasi (December 16, 2010), State of Haryana & Ors v. M/s Malik Traders (August 17, 2011), Deepa Thomas & Others v. Medical Council of India & Others (January 25, 2012), Mohd.Asif v. State of Maharashtra (January 27, 2012), and A.V. Padma v. R.Venugopal (January 27, 2012).
Critics of the Government’s efforts to nominate Justice Joseph to the NHRC have pointed to the number of judgments authored and delivered by him as the factor weighing against him.
While they have a case against him, it has to be admitted that the number of judgments written by a judge alone cannot be a determining factor about his or her competence. As the Supreme Court mostly sits in benches of two or three judges, the senior-most on a bench decides once the hearing is complete, who among them will write the judgment, depending on the interest of the judge. The judge writing the judgment, then circulates the draft for the perusal of the other judge/s, who are then free to agree, or write concurring judgments, or dissents. Superfluous, concurring judgments can make the process of arriving at the ratio of a judgment challenging, and leave the litigants confused. But that cannot be an excuse for a judge to avoid judgment-writing altogether.
Scholars of the Supreme Court have never attempted to evaluate the performance of each judge, on the basis of the number of judgments and orders authored by him or her. It is probably because such a study is likely to lead to comparison, and the drawing of inferences regarding the competence of a judge, which may invite the charge of contempt of court.
George H. Gadbois Jr., who made a seminal contribution compiling the biography of the judges in his recent book, Judges of the Supreme Court of India, 1950-1989 , is also silent on this aspect. He perhaps thought that compiling such data could only aim at evaluating the importance or contributions of a judge, which he has consciously avoided.
What data shows
When Justice Joseph joined the Supreme Court in 2008, the strength of the Court rose from 26 to 31, following a Constitutional amendment. Based on the number of judges, the average number of judgments and orders written by each judge could be easily arrived at, given the total number of judgments and orders in a calendar year.
Thus between 2008 and 2012, the average number of judgments and orders per judge varied from 88 (2008) to 27 (2012). The average was just nine in 1955, 14 in 1959, 25 in 1969, 17 in 1977, 15 in 1987 and 71 in 1996. During this period, the strength of the Supreme Court kept on increasing from: eight to 11 (1956), 14 (1960), 18 (1978), and 26 (1986).
Based on this data, it would be hazardous to infer the competence of a judge/judges in a particular year or era. As Gadbois would put it, some of those judges were giants who will be remembered a century from now. Others, to quote Gadbois again, are blips on the radar screen, sidebars to the history of the Supreme Court, likely to be recalled only by the closest of court watchers. In the history of the Supreme Court, some judges are celebrated merely because of their salient contributions to the interpretation of the law and the Constitution, and not because they wrote more judgments than their colleagues.
Yet, the number of judgments written by a judge cannot be dismissed as being irrelevant, especially in the context of the Court’s efforts to limit its own backlog of cases. If the number of judgments authored by a judge is deplorably and consistently below average, then it is an important factor in the evaluation of a judge. The concerns that such a judge may prove to be unequal to the demands of an institution like the NHRC are valid.
A test for government
The Supreme Court, in its March 3, 2011 judgment, set aside the appointment of Mr. P.J. Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner, even though the majority in the selection committee had recommended him. The Court quashed his appointment by emphasising the concept of institutional integrity. The key test for institutional integrity, it said, is to ask whether the incumbent would or would not be able to function and whether the working of the institution would suffer following the appointment. This test is as relevant in the appointment of Justice Joseph, as it was in the case of Mr. Thomas.
The Supreme Court held in the same judgment that if the selection committee decides to overrule any dissent while recommending a person for the appointment, it should record clear and cogent reasons for doing so.
In April, the Government appointed Mr. S.C. Sinha, Director of the National Investigation Agency to the NHRC, overruling dissent within the selection committee, pointing out that he did not have the knowledge, or practical experience in matters relating to human rights, as required under the Human Rights Act.
The reasons why the majority in the selection committee overruled the dissent have not been made public, and it is not known whether the Supreme Court’s directive has been complied with.
The appointment of Justice Joseph will constitute another test of legitimacy for the Government.