Judges' spat echo in SC

Good Friday row rears head in appointment panel hearing

By Our Legal Correspondent
  • Published 8.05.15

New Delhi, May 7: A strand of the recent public disagreement between the Chief Justice of India and a fellow Supreme Court judge over a judges' conference being scheduled on Good Friday resurfaced today before the bench hearing the constitutionality of the nascent National Judicial Appointments Commission.

Ahead of the April 3 conference in Delhi, Justice Kurien Joseph had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu protesting the summoning of a meeting of Supreme Court judges and high court chief justices on a spiritual day for Christians.

One of the justifications Justice Dattu had then offered was that the conference required the presence only of the CJI and the two other senior-most judges of the Supreme Court (besides all the high court chief justices). This implied, among other things, that Justice Kurien was not required to attend it.

Today, Justice Dattu's stand found endorsement from two members of the five-judge Constitution bench hearing the appointments commission case: Justice J.S. Khehar, who heads the bench, and the second senior-most judge on it, Justice J. Chelameshwar.

But Justice Kurien, a member of the five-judge bench, asserted the conference was supposed to be attended by all the apex court judges.

The topic arose after senior counsel K.K. Venugopal, representing the Madhya Pradesh government and defending the appointments commission, questioned a nine-judge ruling in 1993 that gave primacy to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and the judiciary in judges' appointments.

He said the decision had been preceded by a conference of Supreme Court judges and high court chief justices that passed a resolution to accord primacy to the judiciary in judges' appointments. This, he said, had led to the 1993 judgment.

To this, Justice Khehar said: "It (the conference) is not a meeting of (all) the judges of the Supreme Court. It is a meeting of the CJI, the two (other) senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, and high court chief justices."

Justice Chelameshwar concurred, saying this had been the position since at least 1990.

But Justice Kurien cut in to say: "My brother is not correct. It was actually a conference of judges of the Supreme Court and the chief justices of the high courts."

Venugopal agreed with Justice Kurien, saying he normally found many Supreme Court judges at the dinners that followed such conferences.

"Attending dinners is something different," Justice Khehar observed.

But Justice Kurien immediately retorted: "Judges of the Supreme Court are not invited only for eating."

However, the issue soon subsided as neither Justices Khehar and Chelameshwar nor the other two judges on the bench - Justices Madan B. Lokur and A.K. Goel - wanted to dwell on the subject further.

Instead, they continued to hear the arguments for and against the NJAC Act, passed by Parliament, which seeks to replace the judges-only collegium (panel) that so far appointed judges by the appointments commission, which gives the government a greater say.

During the April debate, Justice Kurien had argued that such judges' conferences were not held on Diwali, Dussehra or Ramazan - so they should not be scheduled on a Good Friday, either.

But Justice Dattu said some of the annual conference's earlier editions had been held on Independence Day (2009), Good Friday (2007) and Valmiki Day (2002). He said the weekend scheduling was meant to avoid disrupting regular court work countrywide.