A House Divided: The Karnataka Bar’s opinion of Chief Justice SK Mukherjee

A House Divided: The Karnataka Bar’s opinion of Chief Justice SK Mukherjee

Aditya AK

A couple of weeks ago, the resignation of Justice Jayant Patel of the Karnataka High Court caused quite the furore among the legal fraternity in Karnataka, with members junior and senior unequivocally condemning the treatment meted out to the much-respected judge. However, another judge of the High Court – outgoing Chief Justice SK Mukherjee – has not quite received the same unanimous support of lawyers in the state.

This fact was made most clear last week, when the Karnataka State Bar Council and the Advocates Association, Bangalore refused to organize the customary farewell ceremony for the former Calcutta High Court judge. That distinction, as history recalls, is reserved for judges who have rubbed the Bar the wrong way.

So, what are the reasons behind Mukherjee J’s chequered history with the Karnataka Bar?

Mukherjee J was made Acting Chief Justice of the High Court in June 2015, consequent upon the transfer of then Chief Justice DH Waghela to the Orissa High Court. He would later take oath as Chief Justice in February 2016.

May 2016

Then, in May 2016, it was reported that the Collegium had recommended his transfer to the Uttarakhand High Court. That transfer would, however, not see the light of day. Senior Advocate Yatin Oza, in an earlier interview with Bar & Bench would reveal his own interpretation of why Mukherjee J’s transfer did not go through.

<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Yatin Oza</span></strong> revealed his theory on why Mukherjee J’s transfer was stalled.
<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Yatin Oza</span></strong> revealed his theory on why Mukherjee J’s transfer was stalled.

“[If CJ Mukherjee] cannot go to Uttarakhand, Justice Joseph cannot go to Hyderabad. And I need not say why [PM Modi] doesn’t want Justice Joseph to go to Hyderabad. This is what is bad. Simply because he has delivered a judgment against you?…

…Most importantly, and nobody knows this, is that by doing that they are stalling Justice Jayant Patel…They wanted Justice Patel to act according to their wishes. But he is one judge who will never, ever ditch the Constitution. So, by not transferring Chief Justice Mukherjee, he is blocking Justice Patel, who is next in line (to become Chief) at the Karnataka High Court.”

July 2016

The issue of Mukherjee J’s non-transfer would be brought up again in July 2016, a week after he revealed in open court that he was offered a bribe in exchange for a favourable decision in a case listed before him. The Bangalore Advocates Association would take serious note of this incident, and pass a resolution demanding the transfer of the Chief Justice out of Karnataka.

His former brother judge, Justice Ram Mohan Reddy would spring to his defence, saying,

<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Justice Ram Mohan Reddy</span></strong>
<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Justice Ram Mohan Reddy</span></strong>

“Judges are judges. Each one has his own approach. If the Hon’ble CJ has said it, then it would be presumptuous to term it a mistake. Maybe in his Lordship’s wisdom it was the correct approach.”

Though the hubbub would subside in the months following Justice Mukherjee’s recusal from the case, the Bar would not end its crusade to get the judge transferred out of the state.

A section of the bar, led by Advocate NP Amrutesh, would write a letter to the Chief Justice of India calling for an inquiry into complaints of the Bar against the Chief Justice Mukherjee. Among the grievances raised in the letter are Mukherjee J’s habit of making adverse remarks against lawyers, his making allusions to their caste, his getting matters not on his roster listed before him, and his tendency to leave court earlier than usual.

While that last point may be true to some extent, reporters frequenting Court Hall 1 would not necessarily agree with the rest of the allegations. There was never a dull moment in the First Court, with the Chief constantly ribbing advocates and sharing lighter moments with his brother or sister judges. Juniors appearing before him got a fatherly faux scolding when they make a mistake, followed by some sound advice and the customary wisecrack. Young or old, you could rest assured that you will walk away from a hearing before the Chief with a smile on your face.

One of the most experienced members of the Bar, Senior Advocate DLN Rao, would attest to this fact.

<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Senior Advocate DLN Rao</span></strong>
<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Senior Advocate DLN Rao</span></strong>

“Chief Justice Mukherjee is very friendly; the atmosphere in his court is very lively, I am sure you have seen it. First and foremost, what he does is put a lawyer at ease, so as to get the best out of him.”

Despite this, the lawyers’ associations seemed to have been rubbed the wrong way by the former Chief Justice. And looking at the recent history of the Karnataka High Court, he is not the only one to have borne the brunt. With the exception of JS Khehar and Vikramajit Sen JJ, four of the last six CJs/ACJs have had run-ins with the Bar.

In 2009, then Chief Justice PD Dinakaran was verbally abused and later jostled by members of the Bar. Acting Chief Justice Sreedhar Rao also faced protests, before he was transferred to the Gauhati High Court. Justice Mukherjee’s predecessor, Justice DH Waghela, was also denied a farewell ceremony before his transfer.

This is a trend former Advocate General of Karnataka Ashok Haranahalli condemns.

<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Senior Advocate Ashok Haranahalli</span></strong>
<strong><span style="color: #993366;">Senior Advocate Ashok Haranahalli</span></strong>

“The tendency of refusing to give a farewell when a judge leaves is not a very good step. If you have any issue with the way the Chief Justice conducts himself, you must bring it up at the earliest. Secondly, the Karnataka State Bar Council is not presently an elected body; it is functioning as an ad hoc committee.

What is the material they have to say that they will not give a farewell? On what basis have they taken that decision? If this is the way decisions are taken, you can make allegations against anybody. The habit of the Bar to wake up just before the Chief Justices retires and sling mud against him is not correct. I strongly oppose their decision.”

On his evaluation of Mukherjee J’s attitude towards the Bar, Haranahalli is in agreement with other senior lawyers.

“He was generally quite affable and courteous to the Bar. He used to give opportunities to junior members of the Bar to argue. I am not aware of anything justifying such allegations against him; I cannot say anything on the basis of rumours in the corridor.”

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news