Justice Karnan vs Supreme Court: Why there is no reason to doubt his judgments following the 'mental checkup'

Today, a Board of Doctors from the Pavlov Government Hospital in Kolkata might medically examine Justice CS Karnan, a judge in the Calcutta High Court. This is following an order to this effect by the Supreme Court. They expressed their concern that he may not be medically fit enough to represent himself in the contempt proceedings that have been initiated against him. This case arose after he alleged that several sitting and retired Supreme Court judges were corrupt in an ‘open letter’ to the Prime Minister. After he was charged with contempt and asked to appear in court, he passed an ‘order’ requiring the Chief Justice of India and six sitting judges to appear before him in Kolkata. He claimed that he was being harassed on the basis of this caste and was being humiliated in public.

I happened to be in court when these hearings were going on, waiting for a later case to come up. As Justice Khehar was dictating this order, I could overhear several lawyers at the back of the court discussing the possible implications of these proceedings. One of them was of the opinion that if the Board of Doctors was to diagnose Justice Karnan with some form of mental illness, it would have major implications for all the judgments that he has passed so far. People against whom adverse orders have been passed could challenge the validity of these orders, which could lead to possible chaos. However, not only is it unlikely that any such finding will have major legal implications, conversations like this only serve to stigmatise persons with mental illnesses. It is necessary that we have conversations about mental health issues and judges, but not in the way they are currently happening.

Possible Implications of the Order

Justice CS Karnan. PTI

Justice CS Karnan. PTI

It has been pointed out by several people, that Justice Karnan is under no obligation to actually undergo the medical examination that has been ordered by the court. Forcing him to interact with the doctors would be a violation of his rights under the Mental Health Care Act, 2017 as well the the right to privacy and bodily autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution. However, if he does consent to be medically examined, there are two scenarios that could possibly arise. If the Board finds that Justice Karnan is ‘medically unfit’ and cannot defend himself in court, the judges might appoint a lawyer to provide him with legal representation. If it finds that he can represent himself, the contempt proceedings will then proceed as it is.

Further, from a legal perspective, a conclusion that he cannot represent himself will not have any repercussions for the orders that have been passed by him in the past. Under our codes of civil and criminal procedure, the health status of the judge is not a ground for a judgment to be challenged. This is for good reason, since there is no connection between the mental health status of a judge and their ability to pass a legally valid judgment. At the hearing where the order for medical examination was passed, one of the counsels tried to argue that his past orders may be suspect after this order. To this, Chief Justice Khehar replied that he could have been developed a mental illness at a later stage, and his previous orders will not be affected by any findings in this case.

More importantly, it is necessary that we question the presumptions underlying these conversations.

There is a clear distinction between mental illness, unsoundness of mind and simply 'bad behaviour', and no conclusions can be drawn about the mental health of Justice Karnan from his recent actions. I did consider taking a look at the quality of the judgments that have been passed by him, but the fact is that the orders have no connection with whether or not he has a mental illness. Bad judgments are passed by (presumably) neurotypical judges all the time, and there is no reason for their mental health status to be doubted on this basis. Presumptions about competence based on mental illness are harmful and need to be avoided.

Judges and Mental Health Issues

The above being said, I do hope that these events spark a conversation about mental health issues among lawyers and judges. The possible suicides of judges in the United States and United Kingdom due to mental illness have forced people to reckon with the conditions of extreme stress and pressure under which judges operate. In a recent article, a retired judge of a Superior Court in the US poignantly describes the toll that presiding over cases involving gruesome crimes and emotional trauma took on her own mental health. To address these issues, the American Bar Association has started a national hotline for judges who may be suffering from depression, mental health issues or addiction problems. While we should avoid making any presumptions about mental illness, it is important that these issues aren’t invisibilised either. There is a need to acknowledge that one of the outcomes of the huge case loads that judges deal with could also include impacts on their mental health.

The author is a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.


Updated Date: May 04, 2017 15:14 PM

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