A plea by a group of lawyers challenging the elevation of Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar as the next Chief Justice of India (CJI) was dismissed today by the Supreme Court which asserted that there was “no question” of him being considered ineligible for the post.
The apex court rejected the arguments that Justice Khehar, while heading a five-judge constitution bench that had struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), had benefitted himself as the judgement had revived the collegium system for appointment of judges in the higher judiciary.
While disapproving the grounds for entertaining the PIL, a bench of Justices R K Agrawal and D Y Chandrachud noted that there were averments in the petition praising the “quality” of the judge who is to be sworn as CJI on 4 January.
“Since the petitioners have praised the quality of Justice J S Khehar, there is no question of him being considered ineligible for being appointed as the Chief Justice of India,” the bench said.
“So far as this allegation is concerned, it is sufficient to mention that collegium not only consist of the CJI but also four other senior-most judges of the Supreme Court,” the bench said.
The apex court also said that as far as correctness of the NJAC case judgement is concerned, “we are of the opinion that petitioner has the right to apply for review or file curative petition”.
“We do not find any merit in the petition and the same is dismissed,” the bench said while rejecting the plea filed by National Lawyers’ Campaign for Judicial Transparency and Reforms.
Advocate Mathews J Nedumpara, appearing for the lawyers’ body, argued that the issue of judiciary’s independence and appointment of judges was important and it was “painful” for them to approach the apex court with such a petition.
He claimed that judges in the higher judiciary were coming from “a few families only” and “it cannot be the exclusive domain of some persons”.
“This court has to listen to the critics. Democracy is all about criticism,” he said, adding that Justice Khehar should refuse to become the next CJI.
As the lawyer was arguing on a high pitch, the bench told Nedumpara, “Mr counsel, can’t you argue in your normal voice? Why are you raising your voice? Why are you shouting? Be in your normal voice. We are hearing you”.
Nedumpara also claimed that the apex court registry should become citizen-friendly as it raised a lot of objections when a lawyer filed a petition.
The vice president of the lawyers’ body also told the bench that Justice Khehar had “restored the collegium” and was its beneficiary and, if he became the CJI, “it will create some doubt in the mind of general public that he had struck down the NJAC for his benefit”.
Another counsel for the petitioner argued that “lawyers and judges today are coming from a very small pool of family because these lawyers are entertained in the Supreme Court and the High Courts”.
He alleged that 85 per cent SLPs filed by common advocates were being dismissed by the apex court within seconds, as these lawyers do not have the “face value”.
The lawyer also referred to the Salman Khan case where Bombay High Court granted him interim bail, without having the copy of the trial court judgement convicting the Bollywood actor in the 2002 hit-and-run case.
He also said that judges, who are part of the collegium, should not be part of constitution bench in matters like the NJAC, asking “how can one be the judge for his own cause”.
The petitioners also told the court that they have sought a direction to the Centre to seek review of the NJAC verdict so that there is a transparent mechanism for judges’ appointment.
“50 per cent judges in the high courts are from family of judges or senior advocates. The collegium is appointing judges with a narrow view,” Nedumpara said.
On 23 December, the apex court had termed as “virtually infructuous” a petition filed by the lawyers’ body opposing elevation of Justice Khehar as the next CJI observing that the President has already issued a notification in this regard.
The bench had noted in its order that the notification appointing Justice Khehar as the next CJI has been issued on 19 December.
On 19 December, President Pranab Mukherjee had cleared the name of Justice Khehar as the next CJI. The incumbent, Justice T S Thakur, demits office on 3 January next year.