In the Justice Karnan row, the judiciary can demonstrate that they will not flinch on accountability
The Justice Karnan controversy is entering unseemly territory. Yet, it has presented a never-before opportunity for the judiciary to score an important point in the scheme of constitutional politics.
At every stage of being disciplined, Justice C S Karnan has made society suspend disbelief. He has been purporting to pass unprecedented ex parte orders against judges
of the Supreme Court, among others, directing the Chief Justice of India and other judges
not to travel out of India so as to “prevent them from infecting” territories outside India with their anti-Dalit attitude. Whether Justice Karnan’s conduct is contemptuous of the judiciary, whether he is at all of sound mind, and what, if any, the punishment for contempt should be, may eventually be determined judicially. However, there can be no doubt about one fact — his behaviour is eminently impeachable.
At the time of this column going to press, no one in authority has used the i-word. The very thought appears to be far removed from serious consideration. Reasons vary. Some believe that it would be meaningless to do so with the judge having just weeks left in office. Others feel that a judge being impeached would tarnish the history book. Leaving aside what reasons compete for keeping Justice Karnan
away from impeachment, here is a simple political thought.
Impeaching a judge of a high court or the Supreme Court is, for all the right reasons, a tough task. Misconduct by a judge can be lightly alleged by any party unhappy with a judge’s decision. In every litigation, there is at least one party unhappy with the outcome (at times, all parties can be unhappy, but such is life when differences cannot be resolved mutually). Arms of the state, in particular, governments, government agencies and the bureaucracy are the biggest contributor of litigation in the country. This renders judges
vulnerable, and unless effectively protected under the Constitution, it would be impossible to have a credible and respected judicial arm of the state.
The constitutional tension and politics
between the executive arm and the judicial arm of the Indian state has been typically informed in recent times, by the debate on accountability.
It is no judge’s case that judges
must not be accountable at all for misconduct, but it is vitally important to ensure that misconduct is not lightly alleged. The constitutional amendment to change the manner in which judges
are selected and tested for accountability, and the amendment being struck down, has been the high point of this constitutional political tension in the past two years.
Now, Justice Karnan
presents a fantastic opportunity to the judiciary. No judge in the higher judiciary has presented a stronger case for being impeached. Impeachment requires elected members of Parliament to speak up and act. To impeach a judge, misbehaviour or incapacity has to be proven as grounds for tabling an impeachment resolution in any House of Parliament. In the Lok Sabha, 100 members have to come together to set the ball in motion while in the Rajya Sabha, 50 members would do. The Speaker in the Lok Sabha and the Vice-president who chairs the Rajya Sabha have to accept that a motion to impeach a judge may be tabled. Each House of Parliament is required to vote with a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting.
At every stage of being disciplined, Justice C S Karnan has made society suspend disbelief. There can be no doubt about one fact — his behaviour is eminently impeachable
If our politicians are serious about judicial accountability and the need to bring judges to account, an impeachment motion for Justice Karnan should be a sitter. Reality is different. The political system will bring into motion the conventional political dynamics for the vote. Justice Karnan’s defence of the indefensible is largely based on one single point — that he is being targeted on caste-based lines because he is a Dalit. Dalit Members of Parliament could call his bluff if they so desire. A government that is said to be committed to finishing off caste-based politics — with a beginning having been made in the Uttar Pradesh elections —and indeed, said to be committed to bringing in an era of judicial accountability, should easily find 100 members in the treasury benches of the Lok Sabha or 50 members in the treasury benches of the Rajya Sabha to do the task of setting the ball in motion.
If Supreme Court judges
were to transparently (read, publicly) ask for such a motion to be passed, it would set the cat among the pigeons. Parliamentarians would have to deal with having been called upon to play their constitutional role — something they say they are keen to see judges
do properly. And, if Parliament flounders, whether on caste lines, linguistic lines, or indeed any political lines (the nuanced and intense floor management in the 1990s when Justice Ramaswami’s impeachment motion was considered by Parliament comes to mind), the judiciary would have proven its point — that the judiciary will not flinch from taking accountability
to the logical and ultimate end, and it is the political system that is unable to handle it. It would prove to Indian society that the legislative obsession with how judges
are appointed, while important, is not founded on outcomes but on the politics
of who may occupy high judicial office.
On the other hand, if Parliament indeed acts to impeach Justice Karnan, that would in itself be a milestone in India’s constitutional history. Not one judge having been impeached in the Republic’s seven-decade history is not a nice sign. It is a pointer to the checks and balances built in by the founding fathers of the nation not having been put to use at all. If politicians play the usual card of convincing the judge to resign midway during impeachment proceedings, the judiciary would have still made its point that it is unflinching in calling upon the system to work towards accountability.
So, the Justice Karnan
situation presents a win-win opportunity that is waiting to be seized.
This piece appeared in the column titled Without Contempt in the editions dated May 25, 2017 of the Business Standard