Amid the ongoing debates on the judicial accountability, collegium system and National Judicial Appointment Commission, issue of Justice Karnan comes as a most unfortunate for the system raising further concerns. In this case, there are concerns that we may not get an easy addressal from even legal experts. In a first of its kind step, history was created when suo motu contempt proceedings were initiated against a sitting judge of a High Court who was later convicted and sentenced to prison.
Architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Ambedkar once said “Who is right is not important, but what is right is important”. In this case, almost everyone is concerned about who is right; Justice Karnan or the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, very few appear to be caring about ‘what is right’. According to the constitution of India, High Courts are not subordinates of the Supreme Court; hence the Supreme Court has no supervisory or disciplinary jurisdiction over the High Courts. It has only appellate jurisdiction in judicial matters. Hence the Supreme Court ordering that the judge should not discharge any judicial or administrative work is constitutionally suspected.
According to the constitution, a Judge of constitutional benches; Supreme Courts and High Courts can only be removed by way of impeachment by the Parliament of India with a two third majority of at least half the strength concurs, then the motion of impeachment shall be placed before the President for his assent. The process thus, involves the Judge being arraigned before both houses of Parliament. In such a scenario, it is also doubtful whether refraining a high court judge from any judicial or administrative work amounts to impeachment?
When Justice Karnan was a judge of the Madras High Court, he made serious allegations of corruption against his brother judges. He barged into the Chief Justice’s courtroom shouting slogans. Following these circumstances, he was transferred to the Calcutta High Court. However, Justice Karnan claimed this transfer to be ‘punitive’ not ‘administrative’, hence has passed an order against his own transfer. He later joined Calcutta High court with the intervention of the then Chief Justice of India.
Earlier this year, Justice Karnan wrote to the prime minister alleging corruption against some judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court. After this, a special seven-judge Bench comprising the senior most judges of the Supreme Court was constituted and suo motu proceedings for contempt were initiated against him. But Justice Karnan failed to appear before the court. Then a warrant was issued for securing his presence.
Also read: Warrant against me unconstitutional: Justice Karnan
He then appeared in the Apex court to only question the jurisdiction of the court to initiate action against him, alleging that he was being targeted because he was a Dalit. Surprisingly, he purported to hold court at his residence and pass several orders against the Supreme Court judges (CJI included), including sentencing them to imprisonment. The very next day of this action by Justice Karnan, special bench of 7 judges at Supreme Court, including CJI has unanimously found him guilty of the gravest contempt against the judiciary and sentenced him to six months imprisonment and also restrained the media from publishing any of his statements.
Also read: BREAKING NEWS: SC jails Justice Karnan for 6 months
Having a brief study of the case and list of dates, it raises questions about why a contempt was not initiated against him for barging into and shouting in the Chief Justice’s courtroom which can be termed as a contempt? Nothing on record is available till date of any action being taken against Karnan for his alleged misconduct at the Madras high court. Even when he purported to stay his own transfer order, nothing was done, at least on record.
It is only after his letter to the prime minister levelling corruption charges against judges of the superior judiciary, the Supreme Court in an unprecedented move initiated suo motu contempt action against him and also deprived him of judicial and administrative work as a judge. While it is still unclear whether the current proceeding against him amounts to contempt, the victim in this case is not Karnan but the Judicial System.
Any system in the democracy should not only be just and fair, but also appear to be so in order to inspire confidence among the citizens. Judiciary is no exception to this principle. More than criticizing or having prejudiced opinions, protecting the constitutional guarantees to all the citizens including the judges, thus protecting our constitution is need of the hour. It is a moral obligation on parliament to deal this issue in a constitutionally allowed way and bring in changes if required to inspire confidence on the system.
Justice Karnan is believed to be submitted to the President of India to commute the sentence by Supreme Court. According to Article 72, President shall have the power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offense.