OPINION

Jailing a judge

Justice Karnan’s imprisonment should have been avoided to keep the judiciary’s dignity

The imprisonment of Justice C.S. Karnan, who recently retired as a judge of the Calcutta High Court, for contempt is the culmination of a series of unfortunate and unpleasant developments. It was a step that was best avoided in the interest of maintaining the dignity of the judiciary. It is indeed true that Justice Karnan’s offences in making wild and totally unsubstantiated allegations against a number of fellow judges, and his tactics of intimidation against Chief Justices who tried over the years to discipline him, were shocking and completely unacceptable. However, a Supreme Court that allowed him to enter the hallowed portals of the higher judiciary would have done better had it adopted a more pragmatic approach. Mr. Karnan was due to retire and it would have been sufficient if he was allowed to do so under a dark cloud of dishonour, after spending his last days in office stripped of judicial work. It is an extraordinarily low moment for the institution that a man who the Supreme Court felt needed his mental health evaluated should be sentenced for contempt of court, arrested and sent to jail. As for alternatives to imprisonment, recommending his impeachment to Parliament was a possibility the Supreme Court may have also done well to consider. There is no defence of Justice Karnan’s disdainful refusal to answer the contempt charge or going into hiding to avoid arrest for nearly seven weeks — actions that only served to reinforce his waywardness and disregard for the law.

It is also time for some introspection within the judiciary on the manner in which judges are chosen. That someone as ill-suited to judicial office as Justice Karnan entered the superior judiciary exposes the inadequacies of the collegium system. The absence of a mechanism to discipline recalcitrant judges is another glaring lacuna in the existing system. With the Constitution prescribing impeachment by Parliament, a long-winded and cumbersome process, as the sole means to remove a judge, Chief Justices of the High Courts are at their wits’ end when it comes to dealing with refractory judges who are not amenable to any discipline or capable of self-restraint. Non-allotment of judicial work and transfer to another High Court are measures available for the purpose, but in Mr. Karnan’s case these hardly had any chastening effect. Instead, he continued to make the self-serving claim that he was being victimised because he was a Dalit. He now has the option of moving the court to seek suspension of his sentence or appealing to the President for its remission. No one would really grudge Mr. Karnan an opportunity to secure his liberty, but one can only hope that in future he does not use his time in prison to play to the gallery and portray himself as a martyr in the cause of fighting corruption in the judiciary.

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