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SC bins govt plea on judges

The Supreme Court today rejected the Centre's plea to throw out two PILs seeking filling up of judge vacancies and asked it to spell out its stance on the issue within a month.

By Our Legal Correspondent
  • Published 31.01.17
  •  

New Delhi, Jan. 30: The Supreme Court today rejected the Centre's plea to throw out two PILs seeking filling up of judge vacancies and asked it to spell out its stance on the issue within a month.

The matter has been a major irritant between the Narendra Modi government and judiciary over the past year.

"Once we have entertained a petition, we can't throw it away like that. It can't be treated in a slipshod manner. We have to pass an order and they (petitioners) say they are espousing the cause of the judiciary. So we can't leave it. We grant you one month's time. Let us see how things progress," a bench of Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar and Justice N.V. Ramana told attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi.

Rohatgi, representing the Centre, had urged the bench to dismiss the two PILs, one filed by a retired army officer, Col. Anil Kabotra, and the other by an advocate, Ashwini Upadhya. Both sought steps to fill up the over 550 vacancies in the country's high courts.

There had been constant friction between the previous CJI, T.S. Thakur, and the government over the delay in judicial appointments, with the top judge at one point threatening to pass a judicial order. Justice Thakur retired on January 3 this year and the matter came up for the first time today before the new CJI, Justice Khehar.

Rohatgi raised the matter by referring to the pleas and saying: "We don't want any parallel proceedings as we feel this (judges' appointments) is a matter between the government and the Chief Justice of India. We assure that whatever information the Chief Justice of India needs will be provided and there will not be any delay on our part."

"We have sent the MoP to the then CJI more than six months ago and we are yet to get any response. Once this MoP is finalised, all problems can be taken care of and the issue of appointment of judges can be resolved on the administrative side," the attorney-general said. MoP refers to the memorandum of procedure, a manual laying down the guidelines on judicial appointments.

Justice Khehar rejected Rohatgi's contention. He also took exception to a plea by an advocate, Mathew Nedumpura, seeking recusal of the CJI from the matter. Nedumpura had tried to argue that since Justice Khehar was the administrative head of the judiciary and also headed the collegium, he should not hear the case as it would amount to a "conflict of interests".

The CJI said: "These days, in every second case someone says that this judge should recuse, that judge should recuse. This has become the order of the day. We will lay down a law."

For the past year, there has been mutual recrimination between the government and the judiciary over filling the 550 high court vacancies. While the government insists that 120 vacancies have already been filled up and there was considerable delay in recommending names by the Supreme Court collegium, the panel of judges blamed the Centre for sitting on the files.

The Modi government and the judiciary have been at loggerheads ever since a Constitution bench declared "unconstitutional" the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act - which had sought to give the executive a say in judges' appointments - in October 2015 and revived the collegium system.