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Supreme Court dismisses Tamil Nadu judicial officers' plea alleging non-consideration for elevation as High Court judges

A three-judge Bench headed by CJI SA Bobde dismissed the plea today on finding that it was untenable.

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court today dismissed a petition moved by eight judicial officers from Tamil Nadu challenging the non-consideration of their elevation by the Madras High Court Collegium.

The ruling was passed by a Bench of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian in a petition by eight judicial officers from Tamil Nadu who alleged that they, along with six other officers of their batch, had been overlooked for elevation to the Madras High Court.

The Madras High Court Collegium had ignored their names for consideration since 2017 and instead recommended those officers who were junior to the petitioners, it was claimed.

The petitioners included Madras High Court's Registrar (Vigilance) R Poornima, Member Secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services Authority (TNSLSA) K Rajasekar, Principal Judge of the Family Courts in Chennai AKA Rahmaan, and five Principal District Judges.

Despite having an adequate number of years of experience as a lawyer and serving for over six years in service in the judiciary, the petitioners had been ignored by the Collegium for consideration. This, the petitioners had claimed, rested on an incorrect interpretation of Article 217(2) of the Constitution, which deals with the qualifications required for a person to be appointed as a High Court Judge. Summarising the grievance of the petitioners, the Supreme Court in its judgment records,

"In simple terms, the Petitioners want the experience gained by them as advocates to be clubbed together with the service rendered by them as Judicial Officers, for determining their eligibility. Once this clubbing is allowed, the Petitioners would like to take advantage of their settled seniority position in the cadre of District Judges, over and above that of Respondent Nos. 5 to 23. In other words, the Petitioners want the best of both worlds."

As of 2017, the petitioners had completed six years in service and yet, officers who had been appointed in judicial services after them were considered by the Collegium for elevation, the plea stated. This also led to the petitioners making a representation before the High Court in 2018. The representation was allegedly rejected on the grounds that the petitioners had not completed 10 years in service as is required under Article 217 (2) of the Constitution.

However, judicial officers in the past have been elevated without having fulfilled this requirement of 10 years in judicial services, the petitioners contended before the Supreme Court. This incorrect interpretation violated Article 217 and was arbitrary and in violation of Article 14, the judicial officers had contended.

On the aspect of Article 217, the Court explains that the Article provides for the mode of recruitment and the qualification which is further explained. The explanation makes it clear that the person to be appointed should have either completed ten years at the Bar or ten years in Judicial service. Highlighting the language used in the Article, the Court says that the Article stipulates acquisition of the requisite qualification from either of the two sources, which is clear from the use of the word "or".

"Suppose there was no ‘Explanation’ under clause (2) of Article 217, then there would have been no scope for any argument, other than to accept blindly, that the qualification stipulated in clause (2) of Article 217, can be acquired by an individual from 2 separate sources, namely (i) from the Bar or (ii) from the ‘judicial service’, as defined in clause (b) of Article 236. This is for the reason that Sub­clauses (a) and (b) are actually in the alternative, as can be seen from the use of the word “or” in between."

The Court further notes that the only event when the experience at the Bar and Judicial service has to be accounted for cumulatively is when the practice has been carried out after holding of a judicial office. Therefore, the petitioners who contended for their time at the Bar as well as serving in judical service to be considered together for ascertaining seniority based the contention on misplaced grounds, the Court opined.

More importantly, the Court elucidated on the process of one being considered for appointment. An eligible candidate is considered by virtue of their status as a practising member of the Bar or a Judicial officer as on the date the consideration is being made. There are two queues, the Court says, one from the Bar and another from judicial service and a candidate canm be part of only one que depending on the role assumed by the candidate as on the date of such consideration.

"Hopping on and hopping off from one queue to the other, is not permissible. Today, if any of the petitioners cease to be Judicial Officers and become Advocates, they may be eligible to be considered against the quota intended for the Bar. But while continuing as Judicial Officers, they cannot seek to invoke Explanation (a) as it applies only to those who have become advocates after having held a judicial office," the judgment says.

As such, the Court concluded that the petition was "wholly untenable" and misconceived and therefore, dismissed.

Read Judgment:

R Poornima vs UOI.pdf
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