Spotlight is a series where we shine the, well, spotlight on lawyers, judges and legal experts who made news over the past week.
A man who has donned many hats in a life full of varied experiences, Justice L Nageswara Rao acted in a number of films and even played domestic first-class cricket in his early days.
And there's much more to the personality of Justice Rao, who will retire during Supreme Court vacations (June 6, 2022).
Attorney General KK Venugopal revealed that Justice Rao was a part of 555 benches and delivered over 160 judgments during his tenure, which saw him pass some crucial verdicts over the course of almost six years.
On May 18, Justice Rao ordered for the freedom of AG Perarivalan, who walked out on bail after spending 31 years in jail in the assassination case of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly, other verdicts of Justice Rao viewed incarceration from the lens of personal liberty of the accused persons.
Justice Rao was on born on June 8, 1957 at Chirala, Prakasam district, Andhra Pradesh. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in commerce and obtained a law degree from Nagarjuna University in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
Thereafter, he enrolled as an advocate with the Bar Council of Andhra Pradesh on July 29, 1982, and practiced at the district court in Guntur from July 1982 till January 1984. He practiced at the Andhra Pradesh High Court from January 1985 and to December 1994.
He shifted his practice to the Supreme Court in January 1995, and continued till his directed elevation to the Bench in May 2016. He was designated as a Senior Advocate by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in December 2000. Justice Rao also served as Additional Solicitor General of India twice, first from August 2003 to May 2004, and then from August 2013 to December 2014.
Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan recounted the time when he used to brief AG Venugopal, and on one occasion, the veteran lawyer could not appear in a “huge” case of corporate law for some personal reason.
Sankaranarayanan was asked to then brief then Senior Advocate Rao, who had too little time to prepare, given the voluminous size of documents.
“I don’t know how Mr Venugopal could have figured out that Mr Rao had this amazing, massive talent. He was not one of those publicity kind of guys, who see their names in the papers, something like that. He had just become a senior, quietly doing his work. So I said okay and he told the clients that Gopal will brief Nageswara,” he recollected.
Sankaranarayanan had marked the 12 volumes of documents related to the case with notes, and one copy was sent to Rao’s office.
“I went there. I was wondering how good can he be from my boss who is the legend of the Bar and had had that matter for one week. We are giving it to him and expecting him to be ready?”
He walked into Rao's office carrying the 12 volumes of legal documentation.
“And he permanently wears hawai chappals (slippers). There is no attempt to try and show fashion, style and coolness because that’s not who he is. He is down to earth — what his father was. He is a down to earth Andhra agriculturist...Even CJI Ramana is the same. These are very earthy people with very solid common sense,” he thought.
Sankaranarayanan, who expected protestations from Rao given the short time he had to prepare, recalled,
“As I began to start explaining to him, I realise he knows everything. And he has managed to pull this off in 24 hours. And I don’t know how he did it. He had much more penetrating questions and much more detailed, perceptive points to make than we had figured out in our conference so far,” he said.
Listening to Rao’s arguments was a “jaw-dropping” experience for Sankaranarayanan.
“It was fabulous. Such a learning experience. And I was KK’s (Venugopal) junior and I still feel it...many of us friends, did not know Nageswara. We made it a point to tell everyone, at a coffee shop, everywhere else that this person you have to brief because he is gentle, calm and his mind is razor sharp,” he said.
Speaking at his farewell, Justice Rao said he was not gifted with rare intelligence, and that it was his hard-work that took him so far. Sankaranarayanan disagreed.
“I would say, Lordship is lying. His intelligence is one the most extraordinary, rare intelligences I have seen. I have worked closely with him,” he shared.
The Senior Advocate also said that the judge had a convivial nature of calling everybody by their first names.
“He is very fraternal. He is one person I know who has really captured the essence of the Preamble of our Constitution — fraternity,” he pointed out. To illustrate his point, Sankaranarayanan remembered a time before Justice Rao became a judge.
“We used to brief him in the upstairs consultation rooms. Ideally during conferences, he brought a big tiffin and he brought his juniors, who’d sit and he gave food to everybody. He’d give food to us also. Excellent Andhra chicken curry, rice. I love Andhra food. We’d deliberately fix afternoons. Even if he had one small dish, he took the least so that everybody was full. Sharing food with everybody was very popular thing that he did,” he said.
The lawyer was there when the match between the members of the Bar and the Bench was played and the judge’s meticulous field positioning was instrumental in winning the match.
When one of the strongest batsmen was facing Justice Rao's bowling, he re-positioned Justice Ravindra Bhat exactly 3-feet on the off-side. The first ball was spooned straight to Justice Bhat, who lapped up the catch, won the best fielder of the tournament award as a consequence.
Sankaranarayanan revealed that a man named Ramesh had been the judge’s clerk for the longest time but sometime in 2010 or so, he passed away.
“He must have been in his 30s. Till date Justice Rao has taken care of the entire family — educations, marriages. Even his extended family,” the senior lawyer said.
He also noted that Justice Rao could have been the Chief Justice of India if not for his zeal to adopt and build a village in his home state.
“That village of course he has built up single-handedly now. That's why he didn’t even accept what would have been Chief Justice-ship of India. Because he wanted to build up his village. That’s the kind of man he is...At the end of the day he is L Nageswara Rao. He is one of the finest human beings and it has been my privilege to know him. I can’t find any demerits,” Sankaranarayanan emphasised.
On Justice Rao’s farewell day, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana remarked,
“He has no godfather or support and is a first generation lawyer. Coming from a rural background and reaching the top level in the Supreme Court among the lawyers, and then a judge is remarkable.”
At the time of Perarivalan’s release, the Bench headed by Justice Rao underscored the delay by the Governor of Tamil Nadu in deciding his plea of remission under Article 161.
The issue related to the power of the Governor to refer such petitions to the President of India when the State Cabinet had already given its recommendation for remission or pardon.
“We do not consider it fit to remand the matter for the Governor’s consideration,” Justice Rao held in the judgment.
Similarly, while granting bail to Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan, the Bench headed by Justice Rao held,
“It will not be in the interest of justice to deprive the petitioner of his personal liberty…”
While releasing Indrani Mukerjea on bail, the Bench headed by Justice Rao took into consideration that she has spent six-and-and-a-half years in custody. Even if 50% of the remaining witnesses are given up by the prosecution, the trial will not complete soon, the Court held.
In November 2020, a Bench of which he was part ordered the constitution of a National Tribunals Commission to act as an independent body to supervise the appointments and functioning of tribunals in the country.
A slew of directions came on a plea of the Madras Bar Association challenging the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and other Conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2020 for purportedly violating the principle of separation of powers and independence of judiciary.
In January 2019, the judge authored a verdict elaborating on the role of the accused person in abetment to suicide cases. It was held that conviction for this offence was not sustainable on the allegation of harassment in the absence of any “positive action proximate to the time of occurrence” on the accused’s part that led or compelled the person to die by suicide.
In a public discussion, Justice Rao commented on hate speech, saying a speech can be termed a hate speech if it drives a wedge among groups, castes and community.
“We have 29 states, 121 languages and 217 mother tongues, hundreds of castes, different religions and largest democracy and in spite of all this, the country is doing so well is because we believe in unity in diversity,” he remarked.
In his farewell speech, the judge made a pitch for longer tenures of judges in the country’s top court. He said judges who come to the Supreme Court ought to have a minimum of seven to eight years, if not 10 years of judgeship.
CJI Ramana remarked that Justice Rao will be heading the International Arbitration and Mediation Centre (IAMC), Hyderabad after demitting office.
At his farewell event, Senior Advocate Pradeep Rai revealed the judge’s stint in acting before entering the legal profession.
In the words of the Attorney General Justice Rao’s retirement meant losing an “extremely good judge and a cricketer” for when the Bar played against judges, he led the opponent team.
As he bid farewell to the gathering, Justice Rao hoped that he had been fair during his tenure as a judge, and apologised if he had been harsh to anyone.
“Sometimes pressure of work gets to us, since we are not monks. I have at times raised my voice to drown the voice of the lawyer. But one side has to win," he added.
Justice Rao's many roles in life that saw him become an actor, cricketer, a lawyer and ultimately a judge of the country's top court is an inspiration to all those willing to traverse the unknown path.