SC orders Justice Karnan's mental checkup, HC judge hits back: Here's the story so far

The over-three-month standoff between the Supreme Court and Calcutta High Court Justice CS Karnan entered a fresh round on Monday, with the apex court ordering his medical examination as it expressed doubt if he was in a fit mental condition to defend himself.

But an unfazed Karnan refused to undergo a medical check-up and instead directed Delhi Police to produce the seven judges before a psychiatric board.

The Controversy

Karnan, then a judge in the Madras High Court had written a letter to the prime minister in January accusing 20 Supreme Court judges, including Chief Justice of India JS Khehar, of corruption. His list also named Attorney-General Mukul Rohtagi. However, the apex court had taken this as contempt of court, and they summoned Karnan. A notice was issued to him, asking why shouldn't the court view Karnan's actions as those of disgrace to the judiciary and why shouldn't a contempt case be taken up against him.

The story from verbal and legal backlash ensued from thereon, casting an unprecedented tale where a sitting high court judge stood in defiance of the apex judiciary body in India. If anything, Karnan's defiant attitude further worsened the matters.

CS Karnan. Bar and Bench website.

CS Karnan. Bar and Bench website.

A series of petty back and forths

On 8 February, the Supreme Court issued him a contempt notice, an unprecedented step against a sitting judge, and asked him to appear before the bench in person and not discharge any judicial and administrative functions while the matter was in court.

He was transferred from the Madras High Court to the Calcutta High Court for his conduct. However, a recalcitrant Karnan stayed his transfer order on 15 February.

As Karnan failed to appear, the apex court on 10 March, in another unprecedented move, issued a bailable warrant against him. But the judge escalated the row by ordering a Central Board of Investigation probe against the the seven judges.

Four days later, the West Bengal DGP served the bailable warrant on Karnan, who, however, dismissed it as "immaterial".

On 31 March, Karnan had appeared in the Supreme Court, a first in Indian judicial history, and had sought restoration of his powers as a condition for his re-appearance, but the plea was rejected. He had also said he would not appear before it again even if he was arrested and put in jail.

He renewed the confrontation on 13 April, passing a "judicial order" against the seven-judge bench for "violating" the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and directed them to "appear" before him on 28 April. Later in an order, Justice Karnan directed the Air Control Authority in New Delhi not to allow the CJI and other six judges to travel abroad.

Monday's backlash

Observing that Karnan was making "press statements with abject impunity", the bench had gone to the extent of suggesting Justice Karnan, who had defiantly refused to appear before the bench despite summons, may file some medical records pertaining to his mental condition.

The bench said, "the tenor of press briefings as also purported orders passed by him indicate that he may not be in a position to defend himself. "Therefore, we consider it in the fitness of the matter to require him to be medically examined. We hereby direct the Calcutta Hospital to constitute a board of doctors to examine Shri Justice CS Karnan and submit a report."

The bench reiterated its previous order of barring Karnan from duty, adding that no tribunal or authority should take cognisance of any "purported" orders passed by him.

The court also directed the state Director General of Police to set up a team of police to assist the medical board, due to conduct the checkup on 4 May.

The Board of Doctors is expected to submit a report before 8 May, a day before the next hearing, on "whether or not Karnan is in a fit condition to defend himself".

The bench noted that ever since contempt proceedings were initiated against him, Justice Karnan has been "expressing further disrespect" to the top court and also been making "press statements with abject impunity".

Rohatgi referred to the recent actions including the order passed by Justice Karnan summoning eight SC judges and said he is giving "two hoots" to the judiciary and "aggravating" his contempt before the highest court of the land.

Non-action will make the judiciary a "laughing stock" as the common persons' confidence in the system would be shaken, he said.

Referring to the orders passed by Karnan after 8 February, the CJI said, "I don't understand the nature of the orders. But he is in clear breach of our orders. The nature of the orders is clearly in teeth of our orders".

Rohatgi said that Karnan was "aggravating" his position every day and "he has done it again and again... this is completely unacceptable". The bench observed that these actions may also indicate that "he is not in position to defend himself". "This is a gross criminal contempt. This is not a civil contempt....this court has been very patient with him," the Attorney General said.

Rohatgi added that Karnan has ordered "Your Lordships to appear before him today". "Today? Oh, that's why he is not present here. He is expecting us there," the CJI said.

Justice Karnan's counteraction 

Within hours of the Supreme Court order, an unfazed Kannan called a media conference at his Newtown residence in Kolkata's northeastern fringes and, termed as "ridiculous" the apex court's order.

"I do not need medical records. Without hearing me, how can this be done," Karnan had replied and had sought restoration of his powers which was rejected.

Karnan even threatened to "pass suo motu suspension order against the Director General of Police of West Bengal, if the DGP functions against my wish".

Instead, he ordered the Delhi Police to produce the seven apex court judges before a psychiatric medical board under the AIIMS hospital in New Delhi and submit a report on or before 7 May after conducting "appropriate medical tests".

"The seven accused judges have desperately adopted this ridiculous order, in order to escape the punishment leviable via the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (prevention of) atrocity act," Karnan said.

"With their phenomenal behaviour, it is the said seven judges who actually require medical examination," he said.

"Actually, I am not a contemnor. My work has been taken away for me without any notice to me or without giving me an opportunity to be heard. For the last two months, I have gone through so much, people ask me questions about it and I have no answer. You all have taken a suo motu contempt proceeding against me, you have issued notice to me but at the same time you fixed the punishment by taking away my work," he had said.

Karnan claimed the order was an "additional insult" to a Dalit judge like him, who is of "sound health and mind".

"I further direct the Director-General of Police, New Delhi to take all the seven accused judges and produce them to a psychiatric medical board attached to the Aiims Hospital in New Delhi to conduct appropriate medical tests and submit a copy of the report on or before 7 May," he said.


Updated Date: May 02, 2017 14:31 PM

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