Nine Controversial Moments in India’s Judicial History
The press conference held on 12 January by four senior Supreme Court judges was unprecedented, with Justices Chelameshwar, Gogoi, Lokur and Joseph presenting a letter to the public in which they criticised the Supreme Court’s functioning lately.
But this wasn’t the first time that there’s been controversies about senior judges, including the Chief Justice of India. Here are nine other cases which created concerns about the institution of judiciary:
1. Justice Ramaswami Impeachment, 1993
In 1993, impeachment proceedings were initiated against Justice V Ramaswami of the Supreme Court on allegations of corruption during his tenure as Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. He was accused of spending public money on improvements to his official residence, leading to the Supreme Court Bar Association passing a resolution against him and judges refusing to sit with him. However, the impeachment proceedings lapsed after introduction as the motion failed to get a 2/3 majority in Lok Sabha (which is required to continue the proceedings).
2. The Presidential Reference, 1998
In 1998, there was huge controversy at the Supreme Court after the President referred a question of law to the Supreme Court about the powers of the CJI to appoint and transfer judges in his individual capacity. CJI Madan Mohan Punchhi had been at loggerheads with the government over his judicial appointments, which he believed could not be questioned because of his primacy as CJI, and because he felt he didn’t need to consult other senior judges when making the decisions. The eventual 9 judge bench decision overruled CJI Punchhi’s position, and expanded the collegium to include the 4 senior-most judges of the Court apart from the CJI.
3. CJI Balakrishnan Assets, 2009
In 2009, Karnataka High Court judge DV Shylendra Kumar, weighing in on the corruption allegations surrounding then CJI KG Balakrishnan for not making his assets public, stated that “he is more like a serpent without fangs, who can only hiss, but not bite.”
The CJI hit back, saying that Kumar was just looking for attention. Eventually, the pressure on the CJI became so great that he was forced to release the details of his assets, as did other judges of the Supreme Court.
4. Justice Soumitra Sen Impeachment, 2011
In 2011, Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court was on the verge of being impeached for misappropriation of funds and lying to the court (during his time as a lawyer), but resigned before the full process could be finished.
5. Justice Dinakaran Resignation, 2011
Again in 2011, Justice PD Dinakaran had to resign as Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court after a judicial panel was set up to investigate him for corruption, land-grabs and other abuses of his judicial office.
6. Criticism of CBI, 2013
In 2013, then CJI RM Lodha launched an attack on the government in relation to the way the CBI was functioning, saying that the investigating agency was like a “caged parrot speaking in its master’s voice.” The bold stance found surprising support in the CBI itself.
7. Justice Pardiwala Impeachment Notice, 2015
In 2015, Justice JB Pardiwala of the Gujarat High Court came under fire for making objectionable comments about reservations when dealing with a case involving Hardik Patel’s Patidar protests. Fifty-eight Rajya Sabha MPs backed a notice to impeach him, but the judge then removed the words from his judgment, causing the controversy to die down.
8. Justice Karnan Contempt, 2017
In January 2017, Justice Karnan, a judge of the Calcutta High Court, wrote a letter to the PM naming 20 judges he alleged were corrupt, including then CJI JS Khehar. When upbraided by a seven-judge bench headed by Khehar, he accused and found the seven judges guilty of caste discrimination and other charges, and sentenced them to five years in jail.
Eventually, the Supreme Court held him guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to 6 months in jail. The case has other problematic connotations, as the Court also passed a very problematic gag order restraining anyone from publishing any further statements by Justice Karnan.
9. Medical Bribery Case, 2017
The big precursor to the 12 January press conference was in November 2017, when Justice Chelameshwar referred to a Constitution Bench a petition asking for a special investigation into a case involving allegations of fixing of judgments in the higher judiciary.
Despite the allegations potentially involving CJI Dipak Misra, the CJI set up a separate Constitution Bench to overrule Justice Chelameshwar’s order, asserting his power as ‘master of the roster’ and instead sent the case to a smaller bench of his own choosing.