- Apprentice Lawyer
- Legal Jobs
by Anirudh Burman
News reports have indicated the government’s plan to establish a judicial appointments commission (“JAC”) for the appointment of Supreme Court and High Court judges. If established, the body would not only mark a sharp change from the current appointment process, but also from the constitutionally mandated procedure for appointment. The system at present however, is also markedly different from what the Indian constitution mandates. It remains to be seen whether the proposed JAC leads to better outcomes.
The crucial aspect in measuring outcomes is however, the correct determination of the desired outcome. In order to assess this issue, certain other considerations need to be examined, which are explained in this paper. These are: (a) constitutional provisions, and the original process of appointment, (b) the present process of appointment and their historical development, (c) the views of different experts and commissions on the issue, and (d) the determination of the desired outcome, and whether the proposed JAC would lead to this desired outcome.
Article 124(2) of the Constitution provides a fairly neat method of appointing judges to the Supreme Court. It states that the President (read the Executive) shall appoint a judge of the Supreme Court after consultation with such judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts as he may deem necessary. The Chief Justice of India (“CJI”) has to be mandatorily consulted regarding the appointment of every judge other than to the position of the CJI. Similarly, under Article 217(1), the President of India appoints judges to High Courts after consultation with the CJI, the Governor of the State, and the Chief Justice of the High Court (for the appointment of a judge other than as Chief Justice of that High Court).
The primary authority for the appointment of judges under the Constitution is thus the President, or the central executive (“Executive”). The Executive has to discharge this function in consultation with other constitutional functionaries. Notice however, that this consultation process is not mandatory (apart from with the CJI for Supreme Court judges, and the Chief Justices of the High Courts for High Court judges). The Constitution also does not state that the Executive has to abide by the opinion of other constitutional functionaries while appointing judges.
Over the years though, this position has been completely deviated from, for reasons many consider completely justified.
Present process and origin of process
The Indian Constitution, like many other constitutions, creates a separation of powers between different wings of the state i.e. Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary. However, all three wings remain accountable to each other in some form or the other. The central and state executives for example, are directly accountable to Parliament and state legislatures respectively. Similarly, while the judiciary is independent of the Legislature and the Executive in most aspects, the power of appointment vests with the Executive as explained above, and the power of removal rests with Parliament. This system is designed to enable the judiciary to remain accountable to the democratic process in some measure.
The present process of appointments arose out of a perceived need to remedy certain ills that became apparent with the constitutionally mandated procedure. Seervai’s Constitutional Law of India (4th Ed., Vol. 3) records that the day before CJI Venkataramaiah retired from the Supreme Court, he gave an interview stating:
“…such judges are appointed, as are willing to be ‘influenced’ by lavish parties and whisky bottles…in every High Court, there are at least 4 to 5 judges who are practically out every evening, wining and dining either at a lawyer’s house or a foreign embassy…practically in all 22 High Courts, close relations of judges are thriving. There are allegations that certain judgements have been influenced though they have not been directly engaged in lawyers in such cases.”
This extract encapsulates, in brief, the concerns regarding the improper behaviour and conduct of judges in the higher judiciary. Though a number of past judgements had interpreted the respective powers of constitutional functionaries regarding the transfer and re-appointment of judges, the case of Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record v. Union of India (“Judges Appointment case”) is responsible for moving towards the present system of appointment of judges. I summarise the main points laid down by the court below:
1. The process of appointment of judges “is an integrated participatory consultative process”. All constitutional functionaries must perform this duty collectively to reach an agreed decision.
2. The proposal for appointment of a judge must arise from the CJI (for appointment of a Supreme Court judge) and from the Chief Justice of a High Court (for a High Court judge).
3. In the event of conflicting opinions, the opinion of the CJI has primacy. No appointment can be made without the concurrence of the CJI.
4. A collegium system of appointment must be initiated.
In 1998, in the case In Re Presidential Reference: Under Article 143(1) of the Constitution of India (“2nd Judges Appointment Case”), the Supreme Court further evolved this doctrine and created a system wherein judges would be appointed by a collegium consisting of the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court. Though the Executive would make the actual appointment, it would have no other role in the appointment of judges to the High Court or Supreme Court. As recently as January 2013, the Supreme Court rejected a plea to revisit the Judges Appointment Cases (read more here).
These two cases therefore departed considerably from the procedure enshrined in the Constitution. Many have argued that insulation of appointments from executive influence is necessary to promote judicial independence, but it is debatable whether this insulation has led to a qualitative betterment in the conduct of the judiciary as a whole, or the quality of judgements. Additionally, various administrative and structural issues have been highlighted. Over the years, political parties, experts and commissions have proposed a number of mechanisms for the appointment of judges. It may be worthwhile to consider them briefly below.
The table below encapsulates in brief the proposals of various bodies regarding the appointment of judges.
Law Commission – 80th Report (1979)
Appointment process in High Courts to be initiated by CJ of that High Court. Constitutional procedure to be followed in other aspects. The Chief Minister of the state is free to disagree with choice of the CJ. One-third of judges appointed should be from outside the state.
Interestingly, the report mentioned the need for a “Judges Appointment Commission”, for eliminating the “sway of political or other extraneous considerations…”.
Law Commission – 121st Report (1987)
Recommended the establishment of a National Judicial Service Commission. The CJI would be the Chairman, and there would be three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, three senior-most CJs of the High Courts, the Minister for Law and Justice, the Attorney General of India, the outgoing CJI, and a legal academic in the Commission. Additionally, while deciding a vacancy in a particular High Court, the CJ of the High Court, the Chief Minister and Governor of that state must be co-opted into the deliberations of the Commission.
67th Constitutional Amendment Bill, 1990
Proposed the creation of a National Judicial Commission composed of serving judges headed by the CJI.
Law Commission – 214th Report (2008)
Recommended restoration of the original constitutional procedure to be followed in wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Judges Appointments cases.
National Advisory Council Paper titled “A National Judicial Commission: Judicial Appointments and Oversight”
Recommended creation of National Judicial Commission with the Vice-President as Chairperson, and the Prime Minister, Speaker of Lok Sabha, Law Minister, Leaders of Opposition from both Houses of Parliament, and the CJI as other members. The President would have the power to reject a candidate recommended by the NJC.
As may be noticed from the table above, all the reports above emphasize the need for a broad-based consultative framework for the appointment of judges. Significantly, all these reports have also been informed by practices in other countries, most of which allow for some sort of a consultative process between members of the judiciary, executive, legislature, and civil society. The process being proposed by the Central Government at present also aims to create a broad-based consultative process.
According to news reports (here and here), the proposed Judicial Appointments Commission will probably have the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition, the Law Minister, the CJI, four other senior judges of the Supreme Court, and a prominent jurist as members. The process therefore seeks to give the executive and legislature a greater role in the appointment of judges than the collegium system.
The question however remains: what is the desired outcome? The proposed system seeks to increase democratic accountability in the process of appointments. This is thought to be necessary due to the widespread perception that judicial appointments remain non-transparent, that delays in appointments occur due to the current in-house process of appointment, leading to a huge backlog of pending cases, and finally, that democratic accountability is an end in itself.
But is democratic accountability an end in itself? Does democratic accountability also not seek to further other expectations we may have from the judiciary, such as the writing of better judgements, decrease in backlogs and an increase in access to courts? If yes, would these goals be served merely by the creation of a Judicial Appointments Commission? The point I am trying to make is whether the judiciary can be made more accountable, more accessible, and qualitatively better without tinkering with the present appointment process? Those in favour of changing the status quo would point out that the present system is a complete departure from the constitutionally prescribed procedure. The simplest response is that the process being contemplated would also require a constitutional amendment!
There is a great need to reform the present system of appointment, in order to make it more transparent, and to achieve other social and economic ends. However, we need to think through the available alternatives for meeting our goals, and ensure that the legislative measures we take actually help in the realization of those goals.
Anirudh Burman works with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He has an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and has previously worked for PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi