Sumedh Singh Saini, Director of Punjab Vigilance Bureau, and Anupam Gupta, a public-spirited senior lawyer, deserve kudos for their valiant battles against corruption and nepotism in higher judiciary. Long years ago, it was Gupta who displayed rare courage to raise these highly sensitive issues at a Punjab and Haryana High Court bar ceremony in the august presence of high profile judicial luminaries, including the then Law Minister HR Bhardwaj and the then CJI MN Venkatachaliah. Gupta followed it up with a sustained campaign through media and other forums in pursuance of his mission to restore the pristine glory of judiciary. Equally committed and more effective, albeit because of his position in the system, Saini exposed malignant elements in the higher judiciary through his audacious investigations into Punjab Public Service Commission jobs-for-cash scam, cash-at-judges-door scandal and role of money and wine in judicial appointments and securing favourable verdicts.
A Supreme Court collegium headed by the CJI had last year recommended the transfer of a judge caught on tape but the file is still pending in the Union Law Ministry. A copy of the report was forwarded to the Prime Minister by the Punjab Governor. It is intriguing that the crucial Vigilance Bureau report was accessed by and surfaced in an English daily newspaper only after the country had a new Law Minister. Handling of the infamous cash-at-judges-door scandal also raises questions about the mechanism to deal with judges with doubtful integrity. In August last year, Justice Nirmaljit Kaur of the said High Court informed the police that someone had delivered a packet containing Rs 15 lakh in cash at her residence. Police investigations revealed that the money sent by a Haryana Additional Advocate General was meant for another lady judge, Justice Nirmal Yadav. A three-judge committee appointed by the CJI established beyond reasonable doubt that the judge had accepted money and whisky from undesirable elements and was involved in illegal land deals. The judges’ committee recommended that the judge be sacked. No action has been taken on any of these recommendations. The fate of the inquiry in the scandal entrusted to CBI is clouded in mystery. These cases raise critical issues about judicial accountability and transparency.
Punjab and Haryana High Court has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The nation was shocked when a large number of high court judges proceeded on casual leave for a day to express their resentment over the behaviour of the incumbent Chief Justice. Earlier, it was the Chief Justice V Ramaswami of this court who was sought to be impeached on corruption charges but managed to save himself through a political deal. Names of two judges of this high court cropped up during a rigorous investigation into Punjab Public Service Commission jobs-for-cash scam. They were found to have used the good office of the PPSC Chairman to get their relatives selected for posts in civil services. The disgraced Chairman, Ravi Sidhu, had turned the PPSC into a money-spinner by selling jobs through touts at “fixed rates”. “No haggling please”, he used to tell his “customers”. Sidhu, a run-of-the-mill journalist, was appointed Chairman of the PPSC by the Congress Chief Minister Harcharan Singh Brar presumably as part of a deal that ensured that Chief Minister’s recommendations for selection of favourites for jobs will be honoured. High Court and also other institutions, particularly Public Service Commissions of Punjab and Haryana, were also compromised.
Corruption and misconduct in higher judiciary, however, is not confined to Chandigarh. There have been countless reports about corruption in judiciary. A sitting judge of apex court, 11 high court judges from UP and Uttarakhand and 24 district judges of UP are said to be involved in the cases in which the accused has confessed before the trial court that withdrawals spread over several years were made with the full knowledge of the judges who were financially benefitted from his illegal deeds. Not a single member of the judiciary allegedly involved in the case has so far been brought to justice. CJI SP Barucha, on the eve of his retirement in 2002, observed that in his view “not more than 20 per cent judges were corrupt”. Another CJI said he knew the fault lines but was helpless. A case in which four mediapersons were convicted for contempt of court for exposing the misadventure of the highest judicial authority of the land pertains to former CJI SK Sabharwal. He was accused of furthering the business interests of his sons while persisting in passing orders for sealing commercial establishments in residential areas in the national capital. Several jurists, including former judges of the Supreme Court, opined that Justice Sabharwal should ask for a transparent inquiry to clear his name.
The root cause of the problem is that appointment of judges to the high courts is not based on merit. The entire process lacks transparency and accountability. Law Ministry in its submission before a parliamentary committee argued that disclosure of the names recommended for appointment of judges could come in the way of dispassionate consideration of the names. The argument is disingenuous. How come, disclosure of proposals made for appointment of judges would affect impartiality? In fact, uncalled for secrecy in the matter leads to, in some cases, appointment of tainted persons. This malady came in sharp focus when a practising lawyer was appointed a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court even though the then Chief Justice of the High Court had expressed reservation about the reputation of the person concerned. The conscientious Chief Justice resigned in disgust while the tainted judge had the last laugh. Such an appointment would be well nigh impossible if a transparent system of selection and appointment to higher judiciary is in place.
Transparency in appointment to superior judiciary is essential for ensuring independence and dignity of the institution. Powers to appoint judges was grossly misused by the Congress government in 1970s. The then government talked of committed judiciary, committed not to justice and fair play but to ruling party and its social philosophy. Lack of transparency in appointment of judges and denial of any role to the executive in the matter are matters of grave concern. It is high time the Law Commission’s recommendation to set up a National Judicial Commission to monitor the appointment and transfer of judges is implemented. The BJP and the CPM have supported the Law Commission’s recommendation. In this system, judiciary will continue to have primacy but participation of the executive and representatives of enlightened public opinion will provide a strong safeguard.