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The Supreme Court on Wednesday held that a report prepared by the five-judge Committee of the Rajasthan High Court pertaining to objections to the appointment and seniority of judicial officers in the state needs no modification, with the exception of one aspect.
The candidates selected through the Limited Competitive Exam (LCE) ought to be given seniority based on their merit strictly, in accordance with the Supreme Court's precedents, and not on the basis of their seniority in the previous cadre, the Supreme Court held [Dinesh Kumar Gupta & Ors v. High Court of Judicature of Rajasthan].
The order was passed by a Bench of Justices UU Lalit and Vineet Saran in a batch of petitions pertaining to the appointments and allocation of seniority in respect of the cadre of District Judges in the State of Rajasthan.
The petitions highlighted objections relating to seniority among the judicial officers in the state, factoring in the introduction of the Rajasthan Judicial Services Rules of 2010, as well as the three streams of direct recruits, appointments from the Bar, and appointments through Limited Competitive Exam (LCE).
In January 2010, the Rajasthan Judicial Service Rules were brought. The Rules which dealt with regulation of recruitment and the conditions and other matters related to the service of persons appointed to the Rajasthan Judicial Service.
These Rules address aspects concerning eligibility, cadre, seniority, and probation, among others, and touch upon the various aspects of appointments and promotions in the state judicial services.
In March 2010, a notification was issued announcing the vacancies in the judicial services. The number of vacancies to be filled from within the Bar, through the LCE, and direct recruitment were mentioned.
The next month, a notification was issued inviting applications from Senior Civil Judges for appointment as District Judges. The number of posts to be filled through direct recruitment and LCE candidates was yet again mentioned.
A formal order had also notified the promotion of 47 judicial officers to the level of Additional District Judges in accordance with the recommendations made to this effect in 2008, prior to the Rules coming into effect. These judicial officers were at first manning Fast Track Courts. These officers were not intimated by the High Court that they could appear for the LCE to be conducted in pursuance of the notification of April 2010.
Subsequently, another order notified promotion of 49 Senior Civil Judges as Additional District and Sessions Judges on an ad-hoc basis to man Fast Track Courts.
In September 2010, after the written examination in pursuance to the April 2010 order was complete, the interview process of selected candidates was deferred sine die. Later that month, the entire examination process was directed to be held afresh.
In March 2011, a new notification for renotifying the vacancies for direct recruits and promotions through LCE was issued. On the same day, two other orders were issued, one which did away with 40 Fast Track Courts, and the other which allowed for the rest to continue "on ad-hoc basis as against the available vacant posts".
In 2014, a final seniority list of all judicial officers was drawn up and published. This list was accepted to be correct and was not under challenge.
Subsequently, a provisional seniority list was prepared of all judicial officers.
The Court noted that the candidates who were successful in the LCE were given the original order of seniority in the feeder cadre without receiving any benefit for having successfully cleared the LCE. Further, the 47 judicial officers promoted in April 2010 were en-bloc placed above all the appointees, pursuant to selection undertaken in 2011.
Certain objections were raised as regards the provisional list. Writ petitions were filed pertaining to the appointment of 47 judicial officers not being in accordance with the 2010 Rules. A report by the Rajasthan High Court dated March 15, 2019 dealt with all the objections and was placed on record.
In the meantime, a five-judge Committee of the High Court headed by its Chief Justice considered various questions pertaining to the objections to the seniority list. After the Committee gave its findings, the matter subsequently reached the Supreme Court.
The Apex Court considered five questions before it.
Questions for consideration before the Supreme Court:
(A) Whether the judicial officers promoted on ad-hoc basis as Additional District and Sessions Judges to man the Fast Track Courts in the State and who were substantively appointed to the Cadre of the District Judge, are entitled to seniority from the date of their initial ad-hoc promotion?
Answering this question in the negative, the Court cited a number of judgments it had passed on the issue. The Court held that the ratio laid down in each of these cases, as per which the date of initial appointment as ad-hoc judges was not treated as the reasonable date for being considered for promotion, completely concludes the issue.
The next question considered by the Court was:
(B) Whether the selection process initiated in terms of the Notification dated 31.03.2011 can be said to be in continuation of the process initiated under Notification dated 15.04.2010?
The Court noted that the correct position here would be that the 2011 notification cannot be said to be in continuation of 2010 notification. The same was stated in the report published in 2019, which highlighted that some candidates selected under the 2011 notification had not participated in the process after the 2010 notification.
To accept that the process initiated after 2011 should be treated as one in continuation of the 2010 notification would give an undue advantage to those persons who were not eligible for the same in 2010, the Court said.
The third question dealt with by the Supreme Court was:
(C) Whether the substantive promotion granted to the 47 Judicial Officers must be taken to be part of the same selection process pursuant to the Notification dated 31.03.2011 and whether the 47 Judicial Officers could be placed en-bloc senior to the candidates selected in said selection process initiated pursuant to the Notification dated 31.03.2011, without applying the Cyclic Order in terms of 2010 Rules?
The Court held that the substantive promotion granted to the 47 judicial officers cannot be taken to be part of the same selection process in which direct recruits and candidates through LCE were appointed to the District Judge Cadre in 2013.
The cyclic order would not get attracted, as it was rightly pointed out in the 2019 report, the Court said. It is highlighted that the substantive appointment of these 47 officers is separate and distinct from the appointment procedure of 2017. Since there was a difference of more than three years in the appointment process, the cyclic order ought not to get attracted, the Court concluded. The judgment reads,
"It is true that the Cyclic Order and the quota for different streams ensure equitable treatment for three sources. However, the application of the Cyclic Order must depend upon the fact situations...Other things being equal, certainly the quotas for different streams and the Cyclic Order must be adhered to. However, if such adherence itself is going to cause incongruous situation and inflict incalculable harm, insistence upon applicability of the Cyclic Order in such cases may not be appropriate."
The Court concluded in this regard that the 47 judicial officers were rightly placed en-bloc senior to all the other candidates selected pursuant to the 2011 notification.
The next question before the Court was:
(D) Whether the inter se placement of candidates selected to the Cadre of District Judge in the State through Limited Competitive Examination, in the seniority list must be based on their merit in said examination or should it be based on their initial seniority in the erstwhile cadre?
While addressing this question, the Court refers to the judgment in the All India Judges' Associatrions vs UOI case, where emphasis was placed on merit for filling of the 25% quota for selection through LCE. In that judgment, the Court had said that the promotion through LCE should be “strictly on the basis of merit.” Additionally, the 2010 Rules also used the phrase “strictly on the basis of merit” while dealing with the issue of LCE.
The 2019 report of the High Court, however, placed reliance on Rule 47 of the 2010 Rules and held that the inter se seniority of the promotees to District Judge Cadre in the same year should be the same as it was in the posts held by them at the time of promotion.
The Supreme Court pointed out that this finding of the report would vitiate the direction given by the Apex Court in the All India Judges' Association ruling, which sought to give incentive to meritorious candidates.
"Instead of giving incentive to comparatively junior and other officers, the entire examination process will stand reduced to a mere qualifying examination rather than a competitive examination affording opportunity to meritorious candidates. The criteria shall then become seniority subject to passing the LCE...In our view, the High Court in its Report dated 15.03.2019 completely failed to appreciate the true character of LCE and reservation of certain quota for that category."
Finally, the last question before the Court was:
(E) Whether the Report dated 15.03.2019 and the consequential Final Seniority List, otherwise calls for any modification or correction?
It was noted that the law is well-settled that service rendered by judicial officers as Fast Track Court Judges on ad-hoc basis cannot be taken into account while reckoning seniority after such judicial officers were granted promotion on substantive basis.
The Court directed for the list to be modified to the extent to grant seniority to candidates selected through LCE based on merit, and not through their seniority in the erstwhile cadre. The Court added that no other modifications or clarifications were required to the 2019 report.
Read the Judgment: