Mon. Sep 21st, 2020

Developments associated with the NJAC

11 min read

The National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, 2014, seeks to
“regulate the procedure to be followed by the National Judicial Appointments Commission
(NJAC) for recommending persons for appointment as the Chief Justice of India
and other Judges of the Supreme Court and Chief Justices and other Judges of
High Courts and for their transfers and for matters connected therewith and
incidental thereto”[i].
The operation of the NJAC as the appointing body for higher judiciary, in
effect, implies the displacement of the long-standing Collegium system: a
unique manner of appointment whereby judges are appointed by the President, in
consultation with a closed group comprising of the Chief Justice of India and
four next most senior judges of the Supreme Court. The judiciary being
responsible for- and, in fact, having a monopoly over- its own appointments is
witnessed to be an unprecedented trend in present-day legal frameworks across
polities, and it was in response to the criticism leveled against this
Collegium system that the NJAC saw its emergence.

A prerequisite for the operation of the NJAC was the modification of
constitutional provisions particularly Articles 124 and 217, so as to allow the
incorporation of the altered appointment method without offending the
Constitution. Consequently, an enabling legislation accompanied the NJAC Bill
for the consideration of the Union Parliament, in the form of the
Constitutional (One Hundred and Twenty-First Amendment) Bill, 2014, which went
on to become the Constitutional (Ninety-Ninth Amendment) Act, 2014.

Article 124A, sought to be inserted by way of the 99th
Constitutional Amendment Bill, 2014, lays down the composition of the said
six-member NJAC: the Chief Justice of India as the ex-officio Chairperson,
“two other senior Judges of the Supreme Court next to the Chief Justice of
India” and the Union Minister in charge of Law and Justice being ex-officio members,
accompanied by two eminent persons to be nominated by a committee consisting of
the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition in
the House of the People[ii].

Appointment associated with the NJAC Bill (and Act), largely
extending to the challenge to its constitutional validity before a five-judge
Supreme Court bench, can be comprehensively traced as follows[iii]:

 August 2014

       Reference to constitutional
bench: The NJAC Bill was passed by the Parliament
and within the month, it was challenged in the Supreme Court, along with the
121st Constitutional Amendment Bill, on the ground that they violate
the basic structure of the Constitution by infringing on judicial
independence.  In keeping with the
contention of the petitioners and in light of Article 145(3) of the
Constitution of India, the three-judge bench led by Justice Anil Dave declared
that “we are of the view that these petitions involve
substantial questions of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution of
India and therefore, we direct the Registry to place all the matters of this
group before Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India so that they can be placed
before a larger Bench for its consideration”[iv].         Petition declared premature:
A five-judge Constitutional Bench led by Justice A.R.
Dave, by an order dated 25th August 2014, refused to entertain the
petitions, observing that it is too “premature” for the court to intervene as
the 121st Constitution Amendment Bill was yet to be ratified by half the State
Legislative Assemblies; until the Act comes into force, cause of action cannot
be said to have arisen. However, the Bench also observed that the parties could
move the Supreme Court on the same ground at an appropriate stage

December, 2014:

    Presidential approval: On 31st December
2014, the President granted his approval to the NJAC Bill, 2014 and the
enabling 121st Constitution Amendment Bill.

April 2015:

   Alteration in Bench: Justice J.S. Khehar started to
head the five-judge bench after Justice Dave recused himself from hearing the
said proceedings, in acceptance of senior counsel Fali S. Nariman’s submission.
Mr. Nariman raised the question of conflict of interest, stating that there
persisted a conflict of interest and Justice Dave must decide whether he wanted
to head the Constitutional Bench or be part of the NJAC. A similar preliminary
objection as to whether Justice Khehar should preside over the Bench, given the
fact that he is the fourth senior most judge and therefore part of the
Collegium,  was dismissed by unanimous
opinion of the Bench[v].   Re-appointment of existing additional judges: Emerging concerns
over the effect that the pendency of proceedings may have over the functioning
of courts led the Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, to declare that existing
additional judges, whose terms are ending while the constitutional bench is
hearing the case of the Commission’s validity, will be re-appointed or
confirmed and no judge will lose his or her job because of the new system of
judicial appointments. Further, the Centre assured the Supreme Court that no
fresh appointments of High Court and Supreme Court judges will be made until
the question of validity of the NJAC is decided upon.    Submissions of
petitioners challenging the NJAC: On 27th April 2015, the hearing of petitions
challenging the constitutionality of the NJAC Act commenced. Senior counsel
Fali S. Nariman contended along several lines of argument:

•   the validity of new law on appointment of judges cannot be
sustained as it violates the basic structure of the Constitution;

•    no “weightage or primacy” has been given to the
views of the Chief Justice of India in selection of judges;

•   referring to the
constitution of the six-member panel, he said, who will decide if the panel
gets divided vertically on the question of appointment of a judge;

•      a Chief Justice of a High Court is not a participant of the
NJAC but can only send his recommendation to the NJAC;

•      “preponderance” of views of three senior most judges of the
apex court, as recommended by the Justice Venkatachaliah panel, has not been
not provided for by the NJAC Act.

Nariman was supported
by Anil Divan, the mainstay of whose argument extended to the submission that
“the manner in which it (NJAC) has been constituted, the Act has altered the basic
structure of the Constitution”.

Further supplementing
these arguments, senior advocate Arvind P. Datar questioned the Central
Government’s intention by pointing out that no criteria had been stipulated to
determine the inclusion of  “eminent
personalities” in the NJAC.Reference to higher bench refused: The Supreme Court
decided that for determining the constitutionality of the NJAC, it will not
make a reference to its nine-judge bench or eleven-judge bench. The Attorney
General, Mr. Mukul Rohatgi, had been attempting to maintain that if the Court
was relying on the nine-judge bench judgment of the year 1998 (In re Special
Reference 1) or the seven-judge bench judgment of 1993 (Supreme Court
Advocates-on-Record Association v. Union of India), both of which
formalised the Collegium system, then the present petitions are to be referred
to a Bench of nine or eleven judges.  Impact of NJAC: The ongoing proceedings progressed to a deliberation as to
the effect that the NJAC Act may have on the working of the judiciary in India,
with the Bench expressing a critical view of the proposed method of judicial
appointment. It posed questions as regards the working of the NJAC, with
particular emphasis on the manner, if any, in which it would make judicial
functioning more “meaningful and accountable”. The reference made by the Bench
pertained directly to the Statement of Objects and Reasons in the NJAC Act,
2014: “The said Commission would provide a meaningful role for the judiciary,
the executive and eminent persons to present their view points and make the
participants accountable, while also introducing transparency in the selection
process.”

Further, in response
to the provision in the Act pertaining to the nomination of two eminent persons
by a three-member panel of the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition or the
leader of the largest opposition party and Chief Justice of India, the bench
tersely observed how two politicians, with the Chief Justice of India
“sandwiched” between them, decide on two laymen interfering in judicial
appointments.

    Merit of the Collegium system: The focus of the hearing moved
onto a weighing of the merit of the Collegium system as a method of appointment
of judges. Justice Khehar, on behalf of the Bench, remarked that the Collegium
system worked well, conceding that it may have been in need of improvement, the
observation having been made in response to Mr. Ram Jethmalani’s submission
stating that the sole grievance against the Collegium system was the lack of
transparency. The Bench persisted, categorically declaring that “We only select
the best lawyer who can be appointed as a judge. His morality, integrity and
behaviour in society are all [considered]… Tell us one instance where our
recommendation has proved wrong.”. Further, reacting to Mr Jethmalani’s
suggestion that the system should have included the procedure of advertising
for judges’ posts, Justice Khekhar said, “Even without advertisements, we
receive thousands of letters… If we advertise, it will create more problems”.

In pursuance of these
submissions, the court directed the Centre to submit statistics which can throw
some light on the complaints against the collegium system: In how many cases
the Centre raised objections after the Supreme Court and the High Court
collegium cleared names for judges’ appointment; in how many cases the
appointments were reiterated despite the Centre’s objections; and in how many
cases those persons were not appointed.

   Rejection of plea for
re-consideration of 1993 judgment: The Supreme Court discarded the
Attorney General’s attempts to bring the Bench to reconsider the 1993 judgment
that ushered in the Collegium system, citing it to be an irrelevant
consideration at this stage. “If you are successful in showing to us that the
interpretation of the nine-judge giving primacy to the CJI is wrong, you still
don’t succeed unless you succeed in showing that the present (NJAC) system does
not undermine or impinge upon the independence of judiciary,” observed the
Bench.

The Attorney General submitted that the
primacy of the CJI in appointment of judges will be detrimental to the
consultative process.
The Bench remarked that the “government was the first one to agree about
judicial primacy. You can’t change your position everyday. What is the
compulsion now to change your stand… are you saying we were wrong in 1993?” and rejected the argument by stating that the President will
continue to rely on others outside of the Collegium. Further, the Bench
maintained that even the Collegium itself did not impinge upon the checks and
balances envisaged in the Constitution.

      Concern as to administration of judiciary: The Bench clarified that the matter before it, relating to the
challenge to the NJAC Act, can be referred to a larger bench at a later stage,
if required; however, rejecting the Centre’s plea of immediate reference, the
Bench decided to go into the merits of the issue beginning June 8th.
Further, as an interim measure, the Bench directed the continuance in office of
additional High Court judges, whose present stint is due to end in near
future,  for three months. Further, in
view of the need for imminent disposal of the matter at hand, the Bench
declared that it would continue with the hearing on the merits of the matter
and allotted definite time frames for parties to conclude the arguments: “If a
couple of months are taken to complete the matter, there will be high courts
with acting chief justices. The administration of judiciary is also important.
For four to five months, we cannot keep the judiciary in freezer”.

June 2015:

    Bench discarded NJAC as “trial and error”:The Bench termed the appointment of judges to the higher judiciary
to be “serious business” that was neither a “hit-and-trial business” nor could
be left to God. In response, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi submitted that
“hit-and-trial is part of Constitutional evolution. NJAC should be given a try.
It is better then the previous models”, referring to the Collegium as being an
embodiment of “you scratch my back, I will scratch yours”. He further put forth
that “under the Constitution, the power was vested with the Executive. Then
under the Collegium system judges started appointing judges in consultation
with the Executive. Now the third model has to be tested independently. It is a
healthy mix”.    Bench condemns excessive transparency: A
further reservation of the Supreme Court, as regards the NJAC, came to light
with its condemnation of excessive transparency in the new appointment system
envisaged by the NJAC. Anticipating its detrimental impact on the appointment
method, the Bench declared that “the effect of transparency is no one will give
honest adverse report as it will be put to public domain under the Right to
Information (RTI). What is the point in transparency if you can’t give honest
opinion about the candidate? If a lawyer is not selected and loses judgeship,
and if his non-selection is to be subject matter of RTI, his profession will be
ruined. Even if he becomes a judge and later on if the adverse comments are put
in public domain it will lead to disastrous consequences for him.”     Eminent persons: Another pertinent
issue came to the fore as the Court questioned the complete absence of
provisions in the NJAC Act 2014 as regards the removal of two eminent persons
from the six-member NJAC and sought to know, from the Government, whether there
was any scope for judicial review of their selection.

The Attorney General put forth the
Centre’s stand by conveying that the Parliament, in discharge of its functions,
may make such law or rules as may prescribe the procedure for the same. Referring
to provisions in the General Clauses Act, he added, “Whoever appoints a person,
can remove him. In this case, the troika (the PM, CJI and Leader of Opposition)
has the discretion. It should be left to its discretion…All this is in the
realm of academic discussion. It [NJAC] has not started working. Even rules
have not been framed”.

      Revival of Collegium
system:
Speculating the potential impact in the event of conclusion of the ongoing
proceedings against the validity of the NJAC, the Bench observed that the
Collegium system of appointing judges to the higher judiciary would stand
revived if it struck down the NJAC Act and the associated 99th Constitutional
Amendment Act. This remark lay in rejection of Solicitor General  Ranjit Kumar’s contention that the Court had
no power to revive the all-judges Collegium, scrapped by Parliament.  It was his proposition that if the Bench
quashed the NJAC Act and the amendment, there would be a “hiatus or vacuum,”
necessitating Parliament’s intervention to enact a new law for the appointment
of judges. Reviving the Collegium would amount to legislation, which was in the
jurisdiction of Parliament, not the Supreme Court. The government maintained
its stand to the effect that the
collegium system is “dead and buried forever” and it cannot be revived even if
the Constitution Bench quashes the proposed NJAC.     Debate in State Assemblies: The
constitutional Bench, headed by Justice J.S. Khehar, voiced skepticism as the
Centre and Gujarat said that the NJAC was the “will of the people” and a
product of unanimous public and legislative support. Rebutting the government’s
submissions stating that 20 State Assemblies have ratified the Constitutional
Amendment and that the “whole nation” wanted the NJAC, the bench challenged the
government: “Was there any debate in the Gujarat Assembly or you just passed it
without discussion?” It is pertinent to note that the judiciary stands
prohibited, by constitutional mandate, from inquiring into such proceedings:
the validity of any proceedings in the legislature of a State shall not be
called in question on the ground of any alleged irregularity of procedure[vi], deliberation as to a bill
(and the extent thereof) falling within the ambit of the  term “procedure”.

The proceedings as regard the constitutionality of the NJAC are
ongoing before the said five-judge bench, the central question being that of
independence of the judiciary vis-a-vis a balanced role of the executive and
the judiciary in making judicial appointments.

[i]The
National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, 2014; Available at: http://www.indiacode.nic.in/acts2014/40_of_2014.pdf.
Last accessed: 30. 06. 2015.

1.     
[ii]The
Constitution (Ninety-Ninth Amendment) Act, 2014; Available at: http://www.egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2014/162235.pdf.
Last accessed: 30.06.2015.

[iii]Sources
include: The Hindu, www.ndtv.in, www.dnaindia.in, The Tribune, the Economic
Times and www.indianexpress.com.

[iv]2015  SCC OnLine SC 388.

[v]2015  SCC OnLine SC 388.

[vi]Article
122 and 212, Constitution of India.

Source: Legal news India

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