A law clerk’s recollection of Justice Arun Mishra

A tribute to Justice Arun Mishra, who is scheduled to retire today from his post of a judge at the Supreme Court.
A law clerk’s recollection of Justice Arun Mishra

I write this to publicly acknowledge my debt to my Guru. I write to share my experiences of working for just a little less than five years with Justice Arun Mishra, as his law clerk at the Supreme Court.

My arrival at the office of Justice Mishra was nothing but providential.
My mother had prayed for it. And God answered!

I was visiting my parents in Kolkata during the vacation, in my final year of law-college. My house happened to be at a distance of just about 200 meters from the place where the official residence of the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court was located.

One evening, my mother and I witnessed a greater-than-usual hustle and bustle in that area. We came to know that a new Chief Justice, Justice Arun Mishra, had just taken charge at the High Court. Coming from a family where government administrative service is considered a huge privilege and opportunity to serve the nation, my mother was not very keen on the idea that I take up litigation practice upon graduation. That evening, sitting on the front balcony of the house, my mother folded her hands in prayer, looked reverentially towards the main shrine at the Birla Mandir, which was just across the road, and prayed to God: ‘If my child wishes to take up litigation-practice as a profession, please provide him with an opportunity to work with people who have earned eminence in the field; could he please join people like the new Chief Justice, who has just taken charge!’

My mother’s prayer was earnest, and proved to be prescient.

On completing my graduation, I came back to my hometown, Delhi, and started my practice at the Tis Hazari Courts. I was just settling into a routine, finding my feet in the profession. And then, providence seemed to intervene. The Supreme Court of India advertised the selection process for hiring law clerks-cum-research assistants. I applied and got selected. God answered again: the Supreme Court Registry asked me to join the office of HMJ Arun Mishra!

Thus began my journey. I was truly blessed to have been accepted by
Justice Mishra at his chambers. He accepted me simply because he is a good man. It is that simple. He is a man who values character and integrity in a person more than any references and lineage or pedigree. Over the years, I have learnt and imbibed a lot from him.

Justice Mishra has never been a boss who would ‘spoon-feed’. I can best describe his manner by borrowing a phrase from how Justice Clarence Thomas of the US Supreme Court often describes the teachings of his grandfather. As recalled by Justice Thomas, the unsaid rule with his grandfather was “do-as-I do”. In other words, during his growing up years, Justice Thomas was raised by his grandfather not by preaching, but by example. This beautifully captures my experiences of working with Justice Arun Mishra. A man of few words, his manner is brisk and business-like. But, always very gracious. A host of memorable moments and images come to the fore.

Justice Mishra’s directions for legal research were invariably so pithy and
precise that one would not be able to do a good job if one had not previously read up on the case or controversy in issue. In my initial days, there were times when I faced the awkwardness of not having done the job in the manner His Lordship had desired. However, this changed as time went on. The change came about because of my realization that it was His Lordship’s way of telling me to increase the speed at which I worked; his way of encouraging me to be more proactive and do my own homework on any particular matter before I went to seek his direction.

He would never sit down and teach or dictate the actual manner of any particular assignment. Rather, what he encouraged in his own inimitable way, was that the junior should be proactive, keeping himself abreast of important issues and developments, and apply his own mind to the given task. He relied on example rather than precept, allowing you the space and time to develop your capacity and confidence.

How should one write legal case briefs and legal drafts? Let me share
what Justice Mishra taught me; and, more importantly, how he taught me. An occasion came when I was to submit a draft of a foreword for a book. Justice Mishra had read the book. The author had requested him to write the foreword. Justice Mishra asked me to bring to him a preliminary draft of one page. I drafted, tending to be more ornate than exact, and placed the draft at his table. He read the draft and called for me. He read with me each line of what I had drafted. With his pen in green ink, he first removed all the excessive commas and semi-colons. Then, he drew a line cutting though the entire page. He looked up at me and asked me,

“What is the use of producing a writing which would require a special effort for the reader to comprehend?"

Then, with just a hint of a smile, he added “reading it cannot be a punishment for the reader”. He wrote out the foreword in his own hand, then and there. I was asked to remain in his presence. When finished, he handed me the paper. I learnt my lesson.

It has always been Justice Mishra’s conviction that legal writing ought to be clear, crisp and cogent, avoiding all legalese and superfluous language. He told me “Kaanun hai, sahitya kala nahi” (it is supposed to be a legal writing, not a literary work of art).

Having said this, let me also state that Justice Arun Mishra is an avid reader of good literature, apart from being highly appreciative of good music. He is very passionate about poetry. I distinctly recall his delight when I once brought to him a collection of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poems. Speaking of music, I think he has the largest collection of old Indian melodies (both classical and film-music) of any person that I know. With an almost child-like curiosity in getting a grip on the latest technology, he takes particular interest in using it to maintain and store his music collection.

I wish to now turn to the work-ethic of Justice Arun Mishra. I have seen him work tirelessly to prepare for the hearings, to get things right, to get the decision right. Numerous drafts; painstaking edits: aiming to achieve utmost clarity by paying due attention to structuring, syntax, diction and grammar - it all mattered to him. He was passionate about it all - a true Karmayogi! I vividly recall my interaction with him on a Deepawali day. I had gone to meet Justice Mishra to offer my greetings. I found him at his table reading the case-files. Graciously, he called for tea and sweets. As he was clearly absorbed in reading the file, I decided not to engage him. Refreshments were served. Justice Mishra looked up and asked me to have sweets. I took the opportunity of breaking the silence and mumbled:

“Sir, you are working even today!”

With a disarming smile, he answered,

“Kyun aaj toh shubh din hai, aaj toh aur kaam karna chahiye. Maine to hamesha ye hi bolla hai ke safalta ussi ko milti hai jissne apne samay ka sadupyog kiya” (Today being an auspicious day, all the more reason for one to get to one’s work. It is imperative to make good use of one’s time to be successful).

I took leave, feeling a bit embarrassed for having not come to office to join work that day. Justice Mishra never made a dogma out of it. Hard work was ingrained in his basic approach to life and living, but he never preached this to his juniors. He practiced it in how he went about doing
his work. If one wished to learn, one only had to see him work. To do as he

On one particular occasion, I got bothered with what I considered to be unfair criticism against Justice Mishra. Unable to help myself, I decided to go up to Justice Mishra and to ask him to do something about it. Ultimately, I did go to meet him. What he told me that day is definitely one of the most important things I have ever learnt in my life. Very calmly and resolutely, he said.

“Look, I do my work. I do it sincerely. My conscience is clear. That is all that matters for me. I have always done what I have considered to be the right thing. I will continue to do the same. I cannot let the noise in the street bother me, and let it dictate my actions. One has to consciously shut it out."

It is often said that people may forget what you say, they may also forget
what you did, but one never forgets how one was made to feel. I consider
myself truly fortunate, for my boss made me feel that I mattered, that my
briefings to him mattered, that my research mattered, that my inputs mattered, my existence mattered. This is a feeling that a junior never forgets - a feeling of relevance.

I conclude by saying that no part of what I have written here is a novel
thought. Over the past several years, I have discussed and recounted each of these things not only with several Supreme Court Registry officials, but also with many law clerks who have worked along with me and several student interns who came to the office. I would like to specifically mention a few of them here. I mention only them and not others for I have taken express permission from only them to mention their names: Sonam Gupta from RGNUL (who was a law clerk along with me; she now works as a Civil Judge, Jr. Division at Uttar Pradesh); Sidharth Sarthi from Faculty of Law, BHU, Varanasi (another law clerk who has worked along with me; he will continue as a law clerk at the Supreme Court till summer vacation, 2021). The student interns who joined the office: Aakansha Kumar Uchariya from NLIU, Bhopal (having completed her LL.M she now practices at Bhopal), Adya Garg from NUJS, Kolkata (she now works at a reputed global law firm in London); and Milind Modi from MDU, CPAS (who also joined as a student intern and now practices in Delhi).

All of them have had their own experiences of working under the guidance and direction of HMJ Arun Mishra. I have had numerous chats and discussions with them in this regard. Each one of them holds Justice Arun Mishra in the highest esteem and regard as a truly remarkable mentor and an exemplar par excellence: dignified, considerate, gracious, committed to a rigorous work-ethic, and unfailingly generous in appreciation of good work done. They all join me in paying a heartfelt tribute to Justice Arun Mishra on his retirement from the Supreme Court. May God grant Justice Mishra a long and healthy life.

The author is an advocate who served as a law clerk to Justice Arun Mishra. Views expressed are personal.

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