Justice Karnan vs Supreme Court: Judiciary must mind its reputation and find a way to deal with maverick judges

If it weren’t a matter involving the judiciary, a solemn institution, the controversy involving Justice Karnan would be seriously funny. How many times do we have a judge of a lower court sentencing the Chief Justice of India and several judges of Supreme Court after holding them guilty of an offence? Precedent would be rare.

For those who are not in the know, the controversial Justice CS Karnan, a judge in Calcutta High Court, on Monday found Chief Justice JS Khehar and seven judges ‘guilty’ of offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act and sentenced them to five years imprisonment besides slapping a fine of Rs 1 lakh on each of the judges. He also barred the judges from carrying out any responsibility in the highest court and asked them to surrender their passports. The Supreme Court on Tuesday responded by holding him guilty of contempt and sentencing him to six months in jail, a first in the country’s history.

File image of Justice CS Karnan. PTI

File image of Justice CS Karnan. PTI

Earlier, the Supreme Court had ordered Justice Karnan to appear before a medical board and undergo mental health evaluation. Karnan had refused to appear before the board and sought a psychiatric test on the seven judges and the chief justice instead. He also issued non-bailable warrants against the latter for failing to be ‘represented before him’ besides forbidding them from flying out of the country. In February, the top court had divested him of judicial and administrative functions. He has been issuing orders from his residence in Kolkata.

If you find it funny, hold that smile please. It’s the judiciary. Nothing about it can be non-serious. And it is faced with a problem the makers of the Constitution did not prepare it for. In their earnestness to keep judges free from pressure and influence, they ensured enough protection for their jobs but they didn’t anticipate that there could be a case like Justice Karnan’s where the same security could be an embarrassment for the institution itself.

For a judge in the habit of levelling grave charges against fellow judges and ordering suo motu action against them — he did it during his stints in Madras High Court and Calcutta High Court – Karnan’s actions are less than proper indeed. What aggravates the matter in his case is his propensity to flaunt the Dalit card to justify his charges against others. A few years ago he had called a press conference accusing fellow judges in Madras High Court of humiliating Dalit judges. He accused one judge of touching him with his shoes deliberately then saying sorry while two other judges kept smiling. He has been making such charges at regular intervals.

His conduct has been less than befitting of his status with some degree of consistency. But the options with the apex court to deal with such cases are limited. It can only withdraw judicial and other responsibilities from the person concerned but can hardly throw him out of a job. The latter — impeachment — requires the Parliament to intervene and as the case of V Ramaswami revealed, it is an incredibly difficult process. Secure in the knowledge that he could not be thrown out Justice Karnan has been issuing unusual orders with abandon.

Justice Karnan retires in June this year. So he won’t be much of a trouble. But what if some other maverick judge surfaces and begins taking on other judges? Obviously, such episodes do not do the reputation of the judiciary, as a serious institution, any good. It cannot afford to be a matter of joke among people. The government and the higher judiciary must come together to find a way out.

Updated Date: May 09, 2017 18:50 PM

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