Centre tires collegium out on riot ruling judge
The Supreme Court collegium has tweaked the recommended promotion of a high court judge, appearing to give way before the Centre’s recalcitrance on another judge who had delivered an unpalatable ruling on the 2020 Delhi riots.
The collegium has recommended the Orissa High Court judge, Justice Jaswant Singh, for chief justice of Tripura High Court, rescinding its earlier recommendation to appoint him chief justice of Orissa High Court.
This comes after the Centre kept the Orissa chief justice’s post blocked, stalling the transfer of incumbent S. Muralidhar as chief justice of the larger Madras High Court.
Justice Muralidhar had as a Delhi High Court judge three years ago nudged police to lodge FIRs on hate speeches by BJP leaders. A day later, he was transferred to Punjab and Haryana High Court. Eventually, Justice Muralidhar was elevated to Orissa High Court chief justice.
The collegium’s alteration of the recommendation on Justice Singh puts Justice Muralidhar’s fate in limbo, and suggests the apex court has taken a step back after several aggressive moves in its battle of supremacy with the Centre over judicial appointments and transfers.
The collegium had recommended the transfer and promotion of Justice Muralidhar and Justice Singh, respectively, on September 28 last year, along with the transfers and promotions of three other high court judges.
The Centre sat on the transfer of Justice Muralidhar — which means it had to stall the promotion of Justice Singh too — while approving the other three recommendations. On January 25, the collegium adopted a resolution saying: “The Supreme Court collegium in its meeting held on 25 January, 2023, on reconsideration and in supersession of its earlier recommendation dated 28 September, 2022, has recommended elevation of Shri Justice Jaswant Singh, Judge, Orissa High Court… as Chief Justice of the Tripura High Court.”
If the decision surprised legal circles, so did the terseness of the resolution, given that the collegium had in recent weeks issued several unusually long statements castigating the government’s refusal to clear several judicial appointments and transfers.
Justice Muralidhar had earlier been transferred from Delhi High Court to Punjab and Haryana High Court on February 27, 2020 – a day after he rapped the Centre, which controls Delhi police, over its inaction on the riots.
A two-judge bench headed by Justice Muralidhar, hearing a petition that alleged inflammatory speeches by BJP leaders Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra and others ahead of the riots, had given the Centre a 24-hour ultimatum to declare whether it intended to register an FIR against the alleged provocateurs.
But before the judge could pass further directions, the Centre came out with a notification for his transfer along with those of three judges. Although the collegium had recommended Justice Muralidhar’s transfer on February 12, 2020, the timing of the transfer’s implementation triggered allegations that this was tied to the judge’s riot case ruling. The then Union law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, however, denied any politics behind the timing of the transfer order.
The NDA government has in recent years drawn flak from the legal fraternity for its perceived adoption of a “pick and choose” policy of clearing the collegium’s recommendations.
Several lawyers’ associations have moved contempt pleas against the Centre for violating the law by stalling many collegium recommendations even after reiterations, and the apex court too has chided the government over this trend.