Intrepid judge's stark evidence is on trial

This may not go down as intensely in judicial history as Nehru’s series of much-loved letters did for contemporary Indian history. But a letter from a senior judge of the Madras High Court Justice R Regupathi (since retired) naming Raja in an alleged instance of brazen interference in the judicial process, has by now led to a famous mini-collection in itself.

Some observers like to call it the ‘Sunlight Collection’. It is for the simple reason that the official letter that became public over a year after some shocking incidents in June 2009 (first in Justice Regupathi’s chamber and then in the open court), has sparked off a series of other dramatic letter-releases going up to the highest judicial level, former Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan. It opened up a Pandora’s Box as it were. 

Briefly, the episode involved a lawyer and Chairman of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry R K Chandramohan, appearing for a father-son duo facing criminal charges in a CBI-probed fake mark sheets case, pressing Justice Regupathi to consider their anticipatory bail pleas “favourably” as they are “family friends” of Raja.

“Simultaneously, he (lawyer) handed over his mobile phone by saying that the Union Minister is on the line to have a talk with me. Right away, I discouraged such conduct of Chandramohan and told him that the case would be disposed of in accordance with law, listed before me,” as recorded by Justice Regupathi in his letter to the then Madras High Court Chief Justice H LGokhale. This was after the then CJI had called for a report.

‘Snatching an order’

Later, when a second anticipatory bail plea came up on June 29, 2009, there was a fresh rude exchange of words by the counsel for the two accused, prompting the Judge to observe at one point: “…a counsel (Chandramohan) who made an attempt to exert influence on the court by using the name of a Cabinet Minister, cannot be allowed to succeed in snatching an order in his favour by advancing threat,” the Judge has recorded, adding, he had directed the Registry to place the papers before the Chief Justice for posting the case before some other Judge.

While the ‘open court’ incident was reported by some newspapers the next day (June 30, 2009), raising a nation-wide storm about a Union Minister’s alleged attempt to grossly undermine both Cabinet responsibility and judicial propriety, Justice Regupathi wrote this now-famous letter on July 2, 2009, to the then Chief Justice narrating the entire incident and clearly mentioning the name of Raja.
Significantly, this letter saw the light of day after 17 months, only on December 7, 2010, when the Division Bench comprising Justices F M Ibrahim Kalifulla and M M  Sundaresh-- deciding on two public interest petitions by another lawyer, Elephant G Rajendran, demanding action against Chandramohan, made Justice Regupathi’s letter part of their 78-page order. The Bench directed Chandramohan’s suspension as Bar Council Chief but the case is yet to reach its logical end. The Court order’s ramifications were enormous when Union Minister was identified.

Since then, even as Raja came under intense CBI scan for his role in the spectrum scam, the letter episode set the political theatre afire. It was not only damning proof sufficient enough to haul up Raja for contempt of court but also triggered a national debate on whether former CJI Balakrishnan had held back Raja’s name, as Justice Regupathi had marked a copy of that letter to the then CJI also.

A stunned Justice Balakrishnan then went public, denying that he had suppressed Justice Reghupathi’s letter and also that he had not received any direct communication from the latter until he was in Office (as CJI).

This led to electrifying counter-disclosures, first by Justice Reghupathi himself, now busy setting up fresh practice in the Supreme Court after retirement. The retired Judge said he had, following proper procedures, marked a copy to the CJI but unsure whether it had actually reached him.  The storm-cycle took a full turn with Justice Gokhale, now a Supreme Court Judge, himself jumping in the fray to clear the air about his role in the la affairs letter to say that he had forwarded a copy of Justice Reghupatathi’s letter to then CJI by a letter dated July 5, 2009. The former CJI had also acknowledged the same in a subsequent letter of August 8, 2009.

This in turn implied that the then CJI was “aware” of the letter specifically naming Raja in trying to pressure a Judge abusing his powers. Things came to a head when Justice Balakrishnan again openly joined issue with Justice Gokhale this time, and released a copy of the latter’s covering letter.

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