A new cloud looms over the Supreme Court of India, with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy writing to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, alleging a “nexus” between one of the senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, former CM Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, and judges of the AP High Court.
However, this is not the first time that judges of the apex court have found themselves the subject of a major public row. Here’s a retrospective glance at five controversies that have haunted the hallowed halls of the top court in the past.
The 'Master of Roster' Problem (2018)
When former CJI Dipak Misra assumed office, he was the first CJI in history to receive Z-category security cover and a bulletproof ambassador car with a police escort. Neither of these swanky high security features, however, could protect him from the slew of controversies that he spent the 13 months of his tenure wading through.
In November 2017, Justice Chelameswar referred a plea seeking a special investigation into a case involving allegations of fixing of judgments in a medical college case to a Constitution Bench.
As the allegations potentially involved then-CJI Misra himself, the petitioners had suggested that he should not be the one to assign the bench to hear the case, which is the norm for the CJI.
CJI Misra, however, set up a separate Constitution Bench to overrule Justice Chelameswar’s order. After affirming the CJI’s power as ‘Master of Roster’ to assign cases – even if the case related to the CJI – he then assigned the two petitions relating to the medical bribery case to a smaller bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra. Both petitions were dismissed.
In an unprecedented development, in January, 2018, four senior Supreme Court judges went public with allegations against then-CJI Misra, of arbitrarily assigning important cases.
Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Madan B Lokur, Kurian Joseph and Ranjan Gogoi addressed the press from the lawns of Justice Chelameswar’s residence and said:
“With no pleasure we are compelled to take the decision to call a press conference. The administration of the SC is not in order and many things which are less than desirable have happened in the last few months.”
Thereby, they released a letter they had originally written to CJI Misra, alleging that ‘preferential treatment’ is given to benches in cases that concern the nation at large. They also criticised the overall functioning of the Supreme Court under CJI Misra and his predecessor.
In April 2018, listing five grounds of “misbehaviour”, Opposition parties, led by the Congress, moved an impeachment motion against then CJI Misra. These allegations included his purported abuse of power as ‘Master of Roster’ in the top court, the medical bribery case, and claims of perjury to secure certain land when he was still an advocate.
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, however, rejected the Opposition’s notice of impeachment. He also noted that it was a violation of parliamentary rules to publicise contents of a notice before it is admitted in the Rajya Sabha.
Justice Misra retired on 2 October 2018, after serving his full tenure and authoring some landmark verdicts including on Section 377, Sabarimala Temple case and decriminalising of adultery.
Sexual Harassment Allegations Against Ex-CJI Gogoi (2019)
Former CJI Gogoi was one of the four judges who had gone public with allegations against Misra. Ironically, however, Gogoi’s tenure ended up embroiled in a mammoth of controversies, just as Misra’s had.
As the murk closed down on the top court, amid allegations against Misra, many, including senior lawyer Fali S Nariman, had looked at Gogoi with hope for real change.
However, from early days of his tenure, he garnered flak for an alleged absence of adequate independence from the Modi government in verdicts such as those for Ayodhya and Rafale; and refusing to recuse himself from the Assam NRC bench despite there being a seeming conflict.
His propensity for accepting information from the executive in ‘sealed covers’ played a large role in these accusations.
But the biggest issue to dominate his time was the sexual harassment allegations that were levelled against him – and the problematic way in which the court responded to them.
In April 2019, a 35-year-old woman accused CJI Gogoi of sexual harassment. In an affidavit submitted to 22 judges of the Supreme Court, the former junior court assistant had talked about how Gogoi had sexually harassed her, victimised her and dismissed her from her post.
This led to a strange series of developments, with Gogoi himself conducting a hearing where he alleged a larger conspiracy against himself; the initiation of a probe into the claims of conspiracy before a probe into the allegations against Gogoi; and the woman being denied a lawyer in the proceeding before an in-house committee.
Later that month, the former top court employee, who had levelled allegations against Gogoi, decided to not participate in the in-house inquiry panel, comprising of Justices SA Bobde, Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee, anymore. She cited intimidation and lack of faith in the panel as reasons for opting out.
On 6 May 2019, the three-judge panel gave a clean chit to CJI Gogoi in the sexual harassment case, stating:
“The In-House Committee has found no substance in the allegations contained in the Complaint dated 19.4.2019 of a former employee of the Supreme Court of India.”
Gogoi retired as the 46th Chief Justice of India on 17 November 2019. He was nominated as Member of Parliament by President Ram Nath Kovind on 16 March 2020.
NOTE: The woman was reinstated in her position at the court in January 2020. The report ordered by the special bench set up by Gogoi to probe the allegations of larger conspiracy was submitted by retired SC judge AK Patnaik in September 2019. No action has been taken on it thus far.
Independent India’s First Impeachment Proceeding (1993)
V Ramaswami, ex-Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court and a Supreme Court judge for a tenure of over four years (6 October 1989-14 February 1994), was the first judge in the history of independent India against whom impeachment proceedings were initiated.
Justice Ramaswami was accused of spending public money on improvements to his official residence. This invoked significant disdain, with the Supreme Court Bar Association passing a resolution against him and other judges refusing to sit with him.
An impeachment proceeding was initiated against Justice Ramaswami in Parliament in 1993.
The impeachment motion against Ramaswami, however, failed to get a 2/3 majority in the Lok Sabha, and the proceedings lapsed. The Supreme Court, too, subsequently, upheld the Parliament’s decision.
In 1999, Ramaswami also contested the Lok Sabha polls as an ADMK candidate. However, he did not win the election.
Ex-CJI Khehar Named in Suicide Note (2017)
Former CJI JS Khehar, during whose tenure the landmark triple talaq and right to privacy cases were decided, had his own brush with controversy thanks to the Kalikho Pul suicide note.
In February 2017, the Committee on Judicial Accountability published a suicide note by former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Kalikho Pul, who had allegedly hung himself to death.
Justice Khehar was one of the judges mentioned in the note – with the allegation that one of his sons allegedly accepted money from parties looking to influence the judge’s decisions.
Pul’s wife Dangwimsai had, following her husband’s demise, filed a complaint against the judges named in the suicide noted, alleging that they took bribes to influence judgments.
In a controversial turn of events, CJI Khehar himself had the case listed on the judicial side as a writ petition, even though Dangwimsai Pul had specifically filed for administrative action against the judges.
This letter was originally sent to the ‘administrative side’ of the court, where it would be decided on an administrative process rather than on the ‘judicial side’, ie, as a case before the court.
This could have meant the letter would have been forwarded to the next senior judge not mentioned in the note (Justice Chelameswar) by the registry, following a Supreme Court decision in the K Veeraswami case, which said administrative permission for an investigation into criminal proceedings could be given in a case where the CJI is named, by the next senior judge.
However, the letter was surprisingly converted into a “letter petition” – a way in which PILs can be instituted at the top court – and then listed before a bench of Justices Adarsh Goel and UU Lalit.
Appearing for Pul, senior advocate Dushyant Dave argued that the new development would negatively impact their options because a court’s decision on a writ petition is final, and leaves no room for further government inquiry.
Eventually, amid significant criticism of the CJI’s handling of the matter, Dangwimsai withdrew the case.
Corruption Claims Against Ex-CJI Balakrishnan (2009 Onwards)
Corruption claims against ex-CJI Balakrishnan began to emerge while he was in office and were relentless even after his retirement.
Reportedly, Balakrishnan’s tenure was mired in allegations, for not making his assets public.
In 2009, Karnataka High Court judge DV Shylendra Kumar had publicly lashed out at Balakrishnan.
Balakrishnan was also accused by former Supreme Court judge HL Gokhale of misrepresenting facts to hide former telecom minister A Raja’s attempt to influence the Madras High Court on behalf of two murder accused, reported The Hindu.
Even though Balakrishnan had hit back at Shylendra Kumar, eventually, he submitted to the pressure and released the details of his assets. Following Balakrishnan, other Supreme Court judges also released their assets.
In 2012, the Supreme Court reportedly inquired about the progress in the probe against Balakrishnan.
Among High Court Judges
A number of high court judges have also found themselves caught up in controversies. These include Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court, who came close to impeachment for misappropriation of funds and lying to the court (as a lawyer), but resigned before he could be removed.
Others named in scandals include ex-Sikkim High Court judge PD Dinakaran, who was probed for corruption, land-grabs and other abuses of power; and Gujarat High Court Judge JB Pardiwala, who temporarily attracted an impeachment notice for allegedly problematic comments about reservations.
Calcutta High Court’s Justice CS Karnan, however, was the first high court judge to be sent to prison while in office.
In 2017, Karnan had written a letter to the PM making corruption allegations against 20 judges. Separately, he had also held the then CJI Khehar – who had also been named in ex-CM Pul’s suicide note – guilty of caste discrimination, along with six other judges, and sentenced them to five years in jail.
The Supreme Court, subsequently, held Karnan guilty of contempt of court, sentenced him to jail, and restrained anyone from publishing any further statements from Justice Karnan.