Decoded: Will Justice Karnan Be Held in Contempt by the SC?

An explainer on one of the most controversial judges of our time. 

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Explainers
7 min read
Madras High Court Judge,  CS Karnan. (Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

Justice CS Karnan of the Calcutta High Court will have made history as of 13 February 2017. Not in the best way, though. He’s the first sitting judge to be pulled up by the Supreme Court on a showcause notice pending contempt charges.

But he’s no stranger to controversies and bad press. Over the past three years, Justice Karnan, a Dalit, has been on a mostly lone quest to call out caste bias and corruption in high ranks of the judiciary, which has no doubt earned him a problematic, if not bad reputation. Besides, this isn’t the only case he’ll be appearing in court for on 13 February, but more on that later.

Why Does the SC Want to Press Contempt Charges Against Justice Karnan?

On 23 January, Justice Karnan wrote a letter to the Prime Minister bringing to light an “initial list of corrupt judges” and three other officers of the Madras High Court for “high corruption at the judiciary”. He urged PM Modi to see that they were “interrogated by the officers of Central Agencies.”

(Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)
(Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

However, for the Supreme Court of India to suo moto press contempt charges against a sitting judge, the alleged deviation in Karnan’s behaviour has to be graver than one letter with unverified claims.

On 8 February 2017, a seven judge-constitutional bench of the Supreme Court took judicial note of the several letters sent out by Justice Karnan with serious allegations of corruption and bias against members of the judiciary over the last three years.

The apex court has asked him to appear before it on 13 February to explain why it should not press contempt charges against him. However, when the trial began at 11:30 am on Monday, neither he nor his lawyer showed up. Attorney General Mukul Rohatagi, who was of the opinion that an “example should be made of Justice Karnan”, insisted that the Justice Khehar-led bench carry on and file contempt charges against him, since he had been duly served.

However, the SC has decided to give him another chance to appear and defend himself on 10 March. Justice Karnan is of the opinion that the proceedings are “not maintainable” since only the Parliament can remove a sitting judge.

Makes you wonder, what was alleged in those “slanderous” letters?

Has He Ever Accused Other Members of Judiciary of Corruption & Bias Before This?

2014

In January 2014, a division bench was hearing a PIL regarding alleged unfairness of appointments of Madras High Court judges by the collegium. Suddenly, an angry Justice Karnan burst into court proceedings saying the selections were unfair and that he too would like to file an affidavit. Then, he abruptly walked out. Though his behaviour was vehemently dismissed by the Supreme Court as uncharitable, two other judges and the lawyers’ union protested against the selection list. Even though the Madras High Court had 13 vacancies, a nomination list of 12 additional judges was put forward by the collegium, many without any independent practice.

His behaviour led to the Chief Justice of the High Court, Justice Agarwal, writing a letter to the Chief Justice of India requesting Justice Karnan to be transferred out since “his brothers were scared of him”. In response to this talk of a transfer, Justice Karnan filed a complaint with the National Commission for the Schedule Castes (NCSC) alleging caste-based discrimination.

When Justice Kaul took over as Madras High Court Chief Justice, Karnan once again launched a series of allegations against several judges based on discrimination.

2015

In May 2015, Justice Karnan publicly alleged in a letter to the CJI that a brother judge had committed “custodial rape” of one of his legal interns – a claim yet to be proven.

He went head on with Justice Kaul when he suo moto stayed the recruitment process of civil judges and raised questions on the inclusion of two judges in the interview committee based on their caste, selected by Justice Kaul. Along with that, he threatened to file contempt charges and filed a case in the NCSC against him. The SC had to step in to forbid Justice Karnan from getting involved, to which he ordered the CBI to look into the educational qualifications of a judge. In May, he passed an order that directed the Chief Justice to not interfere in his courts and “avoid his ego.”

The letters continued. One of the notice was written by him in June to the CJI alleging that the collegium was “autocratic”, “undemocratic” and harmful to his “mind and judicial work.” In November 2015, Justice Karnan wrote to Justice Kaul that he was going on a long leave because “dummy portfolios” were being assigned to him. He alleged that Justice Kaul preferred “high caste candidates.”

What Is the Other Case Justice Karnan Is Embroiled In?

As you can imagine, Justice Karnan is not very liked.

2014

Back in 2014, after he barged into the court and hurled allegations of caste-baste discrimination, Justice Agarwal wrote to the CJI asked for his transfer. In response, Justice Karnan wrote a preemptive letter to the CJI saying that it was important for him to stay at Madras High Court because he was “obliged to prove the allegations (he had) made” against the CJI, Chief Justice Kaul and other judges. In late 2014, 21 judges of the Madras High Court filed a memorandum addressed to the CJI and asked for his transfer saying they couldn’t work with him.

2015

Towards the end of the year, Justice Karnan’s allegation against Justice Kaul for discriminating against him on the basis of caste was taken very seriously by the Registrar of the Madras High Court, who had approached the SC with his letters.

2016

In early 2016, the CJI issued orders transferring Justice Karnan to Calcutta High Court. Around the same time, a separate SC bench had been looking into an affidavit filed by the Registrar that Justice Karnan had “hurled the choicest of abuses” at him when he went to inform him of the transfer. The bench passed an order restraining all judicial and administrative powers of Justice Karnan.

In an unprecedented move, on 15 February, Justice Karnan suo moto stayed his own transfer order citing a 1993 judgement. Additionally, he asked the CJI to file a response before 29 April explaining his position to issue such an order. He lashed out, saying India was “racist” and that he would happily migrate elsewhere. 
Hindu outfits offer traveller cheques to Justice Karnan after his “racist” comment. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="https://twitter.com/LiveLawIndia/status/700331359072456704">Twitter/LiveLaw</a>)
Hindu outfits offer traveller cheques to Justice Karnan after his “racist” comment. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/LiveLaw)
The SC quashed his order on the same day and asked the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court to not assign any cases to Justice Karnan until further notice, and that he could not make any judgement –“suo moto or otherwise.” He was, however, given the space to challenge his transfer and the petition in court, which he did. This is the second case he is embroiled in.

2017

On 9 January this year, the SC allowed Justice Karnan’s request to argue the case relating to his own transfer, making him the first sitting judge to do so. At the same time, it asked Justice Karnan to return 11 case files he still had and vacate his Chennai residence for the newly-appointed judge. This hearing is scheduled for 13 February.

How Does His Caste Play Into All This?

Caste plays a significant role in much of the allegations Justice Karnan has made over the years. He belongs to the Dalit community, and it comes up more often than you’d think. In fact, when he was first appointed as a High Court Judge in 2009, his recommendation is said to have been made to accommodate a Dalit presence amongst senior judiciary.

In 2011, Justice Karnan wrote to the NCSC alleging that he was being discriminated against by other judges of the Madras High Court because he was a Dalit. He alleged that at a wedding party, a judge sitting next to him, crossed his legs to “deliberately touch mine”. He even called for an open press conference inside his chambers where he alleged said discrimination by four or five judges since his appointment in 2009.

This was just the beginning. All allegations made Justice Karnan against the judges since 2011 have included caste-based discrimination, postings and corruption.

Just a few days ago, Justice Karnan lashed out against SC’s contempt notice in a letter to the Registrar-General, saying it clearly showed the “distinct ill-will” of upper-class judges who want to take the law in their hands and get rid of a SC/ST judge. Not only it is against the Principles of Natural Justice, he suggests the order goes against the SC/ST Atrocities Act, which is “certainly a National Issue”.

Are There Any Controversial Judgements I Should Know About?

He passed a progressive law, but not really

One of the controversies surrounding Justice Karnan is a new law he passed in 2010. Indian Penal Law allows a woman to approach a court if a man has sex with her under the false promise of marriage. Justice Karnan observed that this aside, the woman could claim social status and financial support as wife if she was above 18 years of age and the man was above 21 years of age and the premise of the pre-marital sex was marriage.

At its heart it is a progressive judgement. A judgement which granted a woman and her two children with maintenance after her live-in ‘husband’ deserted her. Their marriage was not formally registered in the Nikah book.

But over 1,000 words of the 1,273-word judgement contain sweeping judgements about pre-marital sex and live-in relationships, “sexual cravings” and “sexual gratification”. In his defence, he said he passed the law to “protect the cultural integrity of India.”

The judgement received flak in the media and social media right up until Justice Karnan issued a gag order on the judgement. The Supreme Court came to his rescue when it said the judgement was not out of line and was a one-off based on the facts of the case.

He unilaterally reversed a judgement taken by a two-judge bench 18 days later

In the Calcutta High Court, Justice Karnan was on the two-judge bench along with Justice AK Roy investigating the disastrous Vivekananda Flyover collapse earlier on 31 March 2016. After hearing the bail pleas of the ten accused employees of the construction company on 20 May 2016, the bench rejected the bail and the court adjourned for summer.

One day after court reopened, on 7 June, Justice Karnan sent a note to Justice Roy saying he had changed his mind after going through the bail plea, and also called for the order sheet to his chamber to have it struck off. His revised order granted bail to all ten accused after which he was boycotted by the bar association entirely, and was made to sit in a separate courtroom. Case after case, no representation would show up on either side.

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