OPINION

A fatally flawed commission

Both Houses of Parliament almost unanimously passed, and with inexplicable haste, two laws that seek to abolish the collegium system and replace it with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). There was very little debate and it was clear that Members of Parliament were determined to cut the Supreme Court to size. One would have expected that such momentous changes would have been referred to a select committee to consider suggestions and objections of eminent lawyers and various Bar Associations. The Constitution (99th Amendment) Bill, 2014 and the National Judicial Appointment Commission Act, 2014 are both seriously flawed and contrary to elementary principles of constitutional law. Both laws will also be wholly unworkable in practice. The net result is that a flawed but workable collegium system will now be replaced by an even more flawed and wholly unworkable Commission system.

Unworkable in practice

The 99th amendment to the Constitution inserts three new Articles — 124A, 124B, and 124C — and also amends several other Articles under the ostensible objective of providing a “meaningful role to the judiciary, executive and eminent persons to present their viewpoints and make the participants accountable while also introducing transparency in the selection.” But the amendments actually contain nothing to ensure either accountability or transparency.

The fatal flaw is the failure to give supremacy to the views of the judges in the selection process. Under Article 124A, the NJAC has six members of whom three are judges — the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and two seniormost judges. The remaining three are the Union Law Minister and two “eminent persons” who are to be appointed by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the CJI. In the Madras Bar Association case, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that a selection committee to select members for the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) must have an equal number of judges and civil servants (Secretaries) with a casting vote to the nominee of the CJI who is the chairperson of that committee. If the views of the judges have to prevail in selecting members to a Tribunal, it is impermissible that they will not prevail while appointing Supreme Court and High Court judges. The National Judicial Commission that was suggested by the Venkatachaliah Committee was a five-member body consisting of three seniormost Supreme Court judges, the Union Minister and one eminent person.

The constitutional amendments will also be unworkable in practice. What happens if there is a deadlock? Is it necessary that all the six members must be present at every meeting? Is there any quorum? What happens if one member absents himself? What happens if the veto power is misused to appoint someone undesirable? How are the regulations to be framed?

Article 124C is most sinister and enables Parliament to empower the commission to make regulations for selecting judges and for “other matters.” Thus, constitutional provisions and safeguards can easily be thwarted by regulations framed by the commission.

Eminent persons

About 70 Acts prescribe the appointment of “eminent persons” and 65 of them require specialised knowledge. For example, the eminent person under the Biodiversity Act has to be eminent in the field of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Shockingly, there is no requirement that the eminent persons on the commission should have any knowledge of law.

This small Act, with just 14 sections, effectively creates a full-time commission with its own staff and regulations. The commission will now totally control the appointment of Supreme Court and High Court judges, Chief Justices of High Courts, the transfer of judges and even the continuance of retired High Court judges under Article 224A.

The NJAC Act is clearly unconstitutional. While Article 124(3) of the Constitution prescribes the minimum requirement of a person to be eligible to be appointed as a Supreme Court judge, Section 5(2) of the NJAC Act, 2014 can now prescribe “any other criteria of suitability as may be prescribed by the regulations.” Similarly, additional criteria not mentioned in the Constitution can be added for High Court judges. We now have an absurd situation where the eligibility of Supreme Court and High Court judges will be determined not just by the Constitution but by “regulations” of the Commission.

For the appointment of High Court judges, the NJAC Act, 2014 also requires the views of the Governor and Chief Minister to be given in writing and “as prescribed by the regulations.” But the Act is silent as to what happens if the Governor or Chief Minister or both object. It is now mandatory that eminent advocates are consulted while appointing High Court judges. Who are the “eminent advocates”? Well, that will also be prescribed by the regulations.

The collegium system

The 20-year-old collegium system has been severely criticised even by Supreme Court judges who were members of the collegium. The main allegation is that there is a total lack of transparency. Members of the Supreme Court collegium have also been accused of exploiting their power to appoint their close relatives or particular lawyers as High Court judges. Similarly, personal animosity has resulted in the delay or denial of appointments to the Supreme Court.

Undoubtedly, the collegium system has its failings. But we cannot forget the manipulation and humiliation of the judiciary at the hands of political leaders that eventually led to the collegium system. The controversial Justice Markandey Katju refused to give in to political pressure and it was the collegium system and a public interest litigation that led to the appointment of 17 competent judges to the Madras High Court.

If the main objection to the collegium system is lack of transparency, the better and simpler solution is to ensure more transparency and greater objectivity so that the basis of selection is made known to the public. One does not destroy the building if the plumbing is faulty. Indeed, it will make far more sense to have the NJAC consist of the three senior-most Supreme Court judges, two retired Supreme Court judges and two retired Chief Justices of High Courts.

In the end, the NJAC will destroy the independence of the judiciary. The involvement of the Law Minister, the leader of the Opposition, the Governors and Chief Ministers in the appointment of High Court judges will inevitably lead to serious political manipulation. In 1973, Indira Gandhi struck a major blow to judicial independence by the shameful supersession of judges. Forty years later, Parliament has thoughtlessly created a Commission that the nation will deeply regret. For the judiciary at least, “ acche din ” may soon be over.

(Arvind P. Datar is a senior advocate of the Madras High Court.)



We cannot forget the manipulation and humiliation of the judiciary at the hands of political leaders that eventually led to the collegium system



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