Prime Minister Manmohan Singh threw in an uncharacteristic lecture last week at a book release function that was also attended by Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan. He called for “ introspection to ensure judicial appointments at all levels are up to exacting standards. I also urge those responsible… to take steps to restore to the judiciary the majesty we would like our people to associate with it”.
Manmohan’s remarks come at a time when Balakrishnan had recommended the removal of a Kolkata High Court judge on charges of misappropriation of public funds and elsewhere corruption charges are being leveled against judges of high courts. I can’t recall any other PM indulging in such plainspeak. There is much in our judicial system we must be proud of. At the worst of times, it has protected our rights and shielded us from the dictatorial instincts of some of our rulers.
But suddenly the institution is under the scanner. Problems at lower judicial levels are dealt with by the higher courts which discipline subordinate judges. But it is at the upper levels that these persist.
Legal eagles have written reams about the hows and whys of this malaise, but I have my own theory. From Nehru’s time, the Law Ministry has mostly been headed by lawyers, most of them still practising. There have been 24 of them since Parliament was first constituted.
They were brilliant, eminent lawyers of unquestionable integrity: From CC Biswas and AK Sen in Nehru’s Cabinet through SS Ray, Shanti Bhushan, the first non- Congress minister, P Chidambaram, Ram Jethmalani, Arun Jaitley and others.
The makers of our Constitution had provided enough checks and balances to ensure that none of the pillars of democracy came to acquire more power than necessary. But while the judiciary has been able to keep a check on the executive, the latter has not been able to rein in the judiciary.
It’s simply a case of scratching each other’s back. Judges appoint brother judges through a collegium and rare is the Law Minister who will dissent in an era where, after an election, law ministers have to trade their safari suit for the lawyer’s gown. So, ministers looked the other way when a ruling stipulated that no judge of the high courts or Supreme Court can be raided by the CBI without the prior approval of the respective chief justices. Bureaucrats have no such cover and the CBI can come visiting anytime.
That’s why Justice Shamit Mukherjee of the Delhi High Court brazenly tried to stick it out, with some help from the fraternity, despite evidence which would seem to suggest that either his hands were in the till or that he was a Kaun Banega Crorepati winner many times over. Unfortunately our law ministers don’t want changes because they may appear before the same judges on behalf of clients who are mostly politi- cians or the rich. That is why Justice Balakrishnan has to be lauded for seeking the removal of Justice Sen. The nexus has to be clipped.
To say that a Law Minister has to be a lawyer is like saying a Civil Aviation Minister has to be a pilot. By that yardstick, Kapil Sibal would be a misfit as Science and Technology Minister but the fact is that he is doing a good job out there. Ace lawyer that he is, given an option I think he may turn down the law ministry.