Probing judicial impropriety and corruption

Only retired judges of high credibility would be able to conduct a robust inquiry into Jagan Reddy’s complaint.

October 19, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:17 am IST

NEW DELHI, 09/04/2013: Supreme Court of India in New Delhi on April 10,  2013. 
Photo: S. Subramanium

NEW DELHI, 09/04/2013: Supreme Court of India in New Delhi on April 10, 2013. Photo: S. Subramanium

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy dropped a bomb last week when he wrote to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) accusing a sitting judge of the Supreme Court of judicial impropriety and corruption and State High Court judges of bias.

Contents of the letter

The letter refers to the purchase of agricultural land, in the area to be declared as the capital city of Andhra Pradesh, between the time when Chandrababu Naidu became Chief Minister in 2014 and the time when he announced the demarcation of the new capital at Amaravati. The charge is that the land was purchased by persons, including the Supreme Court judge’s daughters and in-laws (named subsequently in an FIR), after declaration of the capital area limits, at the same low price for the lands which existed before the demarcation, when in fact the market prices had skyrocketed, thereby causing huge pecuniary gain to them. In this connection, in March, the Principal Secretary (Home), Andhra Pradesh Government, wrote to the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Public Grievances and Pensions seeking a CBI inquiry into the findings of a Cabinet sub-committee, set up to investigate charges of corrupt dealings in land purchases. The sub-committee had “opined that public servants at the helm of affairs in the erstwhile government misused and abused their official position to pre-determine the location of the new capital and subsequently purchased lands to unjustly and illegally benefit their associates and their companies and businesses, family members and political party members…”

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Mr. Reddy accused the Supreme Court judge of influencing the allocation of benches at the State High Court (his parent High Court) to hear politically sensitive cases. This, he wrote, led to the passing of a string of orders staying a number of investigations of corruption against the Naidu government. One of the cases the letter cites to show that the High Court is favouring Mr. Naidu is an extraordinary order passed late one evening by the Chief Justice of the High Court staying all investigations into the FIR involving this land scam, which mentions the relatives of the Supreme Court judge as well as a former Advocate General as beneficiaries. The Chief Justice also issued an unprecedented gag order on the media from reporting the contents of the FIR.

The letter also mentions the High Court’s recent order of an inquiry into a private conversation between a retired judge of the High Court and a district judge (under suspension). In the conversation, the retired judge is heard mentioning his knowledge about the corruption of this Supreme Court judge and asking the district judge if he has more information in this regard. The district judge then surprisingly files an application in a pending writ (seeking an investigation into the death of a backward class registrar of the High Court due to alleged violations of COVID-19 guidelines at the High Court) bringing on record this telephone conversation which he had secretly recorded. This unrelated conversation, filed in an intervention which was not even allowed, and which has nothing to do with the prayers in the main writ, is then made the basis for ordering an inquiry into what the High Court terms “designing a plot against The Hon’ble Chief Justice of High Court of Andhra Pradesh and another sitting Judge of the Supreme Court”. This is a rather extraordinary order, especially considering that much of the conversation contained information on the Supreme Court judge already in the public domain and does not make out any plot or conspiracy against a judge or the judiciary to warrant such an inquiry.

With these developments, two questions have arisen: one, whether such a letter/complaint against the Supreme Court judge should have been put out in the public domain; and two, what the CJI’s response should be. In 1997, judges adopted an in-house procedure for inquiring into such charges. In case of a complaint against a Supreme Court judge, the CJI is expected to order an inquiry by three sitting judges of the Supreme Court. Though in C. Ravichandran Iyer v. Justice A.M. Bhattacharjee (1995), the court held that such complaints should be kept confidential, the unfortunate reality is that the judiciary tends to try and brush complaints of corruption against judges under the carpet. Sometimes, if the public becomes aware of such complaints, the CJI is compelled to order an inquiry. But we have often seen that even credible complaints against judges, made confidentially to the CJI, are ignored.

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The same is seen in attempts to impeach a judge. I have found that at least two conditions must be satisfied before a sufficient number of MPs are willing to sign an impeachment motion against a judge: there should be solid documentary evidence of corruption and it should have become a public scandal. In the absence of the second condition, MPs are reluctant to sign an impeachment motion even if there is documentary evidence of corruption. The Ravichandran Iyer decision, that the complaint should be kept confidential, is only likely to lead to more serious complaints being shelved. In any case, as the court has held, sunlight is the best disinfectant and there is no reason why such complaints, even if made against senior sitting judges, should not be put out in the public domain. The view that this would scandalise the court is archaic and has been discarded in most progressive democracies.

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Now, petitions have been moved seeking action against Mr. Reddy for releasing the letter to the media. Contempt proceedings against him would be counterproductive, since he is unlikely to be cowed down. The issue will probably escalate, further denting the image of the judiciary. Some say Mr. Reddy’s charges against the judge should not be taken seriously since he is himself facing several corruption cases. In fact, a Bench headed by the same Supreme Court judge ordered fast-tracking of such criminal cases against MPs and MLAs. However, the fact that the complainant may be corrupt should not cloud the view about the charges made by him; if those charges are serious and backed by evidence, they must be investigated. Charges of corruption can also be a ground for initiating impeachment. Such charges therefore cannot remain secret.

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What should the CJI do?

The purpose of the in-house procedure is that all credible complaints of misconduct against judges of the High Court and Supreme Court should be looked into by a committee of judges. The charges made in Mr. Reddy’s complaint are serious and appear to warrant an in-house inquiry. The code of conduct requires an inquiry by three sitting judges of the Supreme Court. But in a complaint involving the senior-most puisne judge, it is unlikely that junior judges will conduct a robust and credible inquiry. In the case of the sexual harassment complaint against the previous CJI, Ranjan Gogoi, by a woman employee of the Supreme Court, the in-house committee did not allow the complainant to be accompanied by her lawyer, nor did it allow recording of the proceedings. The final report, which purportedly exonerated Mr. Gogoi, has not yet seen the light of day. Strangely, the woman whose allegations were found to be unsubstantiated by this committee was later reinstated by the Court. This casts serious doubts on the credibility of the report.

Comment |  A constitutional pickle of the Andhra kind

Only retired judges of high credibility will be able to conduct a robust inquiry into Mr. Reddy’s complaint. The Chief Justice should set up a credible inquiry committee. This will enhance the reputation of the judiciary, dispel mistruths, and redeem the image of the judge concerned.

Prashant Bhushan is a public interest advocate practising at the Supreme Court

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