Justice RM Lodha and Justice BS Chauhan – a “Supreme” Court of unique contrast

Justice RM Lodha and Justice BS Chauhan – a “Supreme” Court of unique contrast

Murali Krishnan

On September 27 this year, Justice RM Lodha retired as the forty-first Chief Justice of India (CJI). In my short stint as a journalist in the Supreme Court, during which time two other CJIs retired, Justice Lodha was given the most heartfelt farewell given to any of the CJIs; there was absolutely no pretence on the part of the Bar.

As his successor Justice HL Dattu put it, Justice Lodha was a “man on mission”. However, any debate on what sets him apart would invariably turn out to be a discussion on what he tried to correct and how the Supreme Court of India, the highest judicial body of the country, continues to be a place of contradictions.

Justice Lodha was never in the league of a compassionate judge – he would rarely if ever, offer every lawyer or party in person a lengthy hearing. Reprimanding “in person” petitioners for filing frivolous suits to the extent of imposing heavy costs, dismissing admission matters with scant patience, it was never easy for any lawyer in Justice Lodha’s court.

The remark by Senior Advocate Harish Salve on the final day, asking Justice Lodha to hear him out “for at least two minutes since this would be the last time I would be arguing before your lordship” might have gone down in a lighter vain but it succintly summed up Justice Lodha’s court.

Justice Lodha knew that he was not in the Supreme Court to lend his ears to suave lawyers or redress the grievance of the public at the instance of “attention seeking” citizens. Here was a man attempting to correct an institution, an institution grappling with the problem of defining itself. Over enthusiastic interpretations of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, the senior-junior divide and a general abhorrence to the existing system on the part of lawyers themselves resulting in allegations of Bench hunting and intimidation tactics by senior lawyers were all things that undermined the institution itself.

And therefore, senior lawyers were not allowed to mention matters; at the top of every causelist was a request to every lawyer “not to seek adjournment” and by refusing to indulge “in party” petitioners filing frivolous suits, the message he sent was loud and clear – misuse of Article 32 would not be tolerated.

Most importantly, the elevation of Justice Rohinton Nariman and Justice UU Lalit directly from the Bar was an assertion that all is not lost with the collegium system – if the right people man it, good things can happen.

He might not have completed his task but he has definitely set the ball rolling.

Despite his hard ways with the Bar, there was never any noticeable ill will towards the judge. There was not as much of a shadow cast on his integrity. His predecessor, the current governor of Kerala had also  initiated a “clean up” towards more order and discipline on the administrative side after his predecessor Justice Altamas Kabir had undone all the good work of Justice Kapadia. And while there was this “feel good” factor about Justice Sathasivam, he was never beyond the mischievous rumours of the Supreme Court’s corridors. However, any such attempt on Justice Lodha’s integrity was always nipped in the bud.

A democratic institution functions and exists on the confidence that the public reposes in it and the same has to start from within the institution; the institution which supervises the system should itself adhere to the system – and that is what Justice Lodha tried to initiate or perhaps bring back. And that is what Justice Lodha should be remembered for. Given this background, minor aberrations in the form of entertaining a PIL on Kashmir floods and remarks on Delhi High Court senior designations can be forgiven.

However, the contrast which the Supreme Court offers never ceases to amaze.

It is difficult to fathom that this Court, till roughly three months back, housed a judge who used to be the talk of the Bar for all the wrong reasons.

Legal magazine, India Legal, has come out with some scathing revelations on that retired Supreme Court judge – Justice BS Chauhan.

And those revelations only puts it out in the public the very rumours that used to do rounds while he was a Supreme Court judge.

The India Legal story claims that Justice Chauhan had unsuccessfully demanded plots from Noida Authority and had subsequently ordered CBI probe into the plot allocations after it had been cancelled. It also alleges how he had got a benami residential plot in Noida, registering the land deeds in the name of a partnership firm to evade tax.

And the story ends with allegations of “exploitation and harassment” of an Additional District judge, who also happened to be Justice Chauhan’s classmate. The said district judge was, subsequently, terminated from service.

I have never heard of lawyers, particularly the junior lot, speak with such detest towards any Supreme Court judge.

As a regular in his Court, it was never a pleasure to watch Justice Chauhan’s conduct towards junior lawyers. Dismissing a matter because the lawyer got the name of the judge on the listing proforma wrong, showing scant respect for juniors who came to argue in the absence of their seniors and grilling juniors on law totally unrelated to the case were common. And his rhetoric, “Where is your Advocate on Record? I was also an Advocate on Record” was the most hated oratory in the Supreme Court.

The manner in which a Bench comprising Justice Chauhan imprisoned a lawyer for contempt of court during his tenure as a judge of the Allahabad High Court and the death of that lawyer in judicial custody had created quite a furore.

Positive contradictions encourage free thinking, and bring about “creative” chaos; but negative ones devalue the system, lower the standing of an institution and halt progress. If the faith of the public needs to be reaffirmed and cemented, the Supreme Court has to ensure that it does not become a house of such negative contradictions. If mediocrity combines itself with callousness, the journey towards redemption will be all the more grim.

Image of Justice BS Chauhan taken from here.

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