Making history

The Rajya Sabha created history with a successful vote of impeachment of Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta high court who was charged with financial misconduct unbecoming of his position.

An act of impeachment has been rarer than the rarest in the country and its failure in the case of Justice Ramaswami of the Supreme Court in 1993 underlined this. One reason is that judges had better standards of conduct than others, though they seem to be falling now.

A more realistic reason is the difficult and long-winding process of taking action against an errant judge. The tortuous course of impeachment of  Justice Sen and the now infructuous proceedings against Justice P D Dinakaran are proof of this. The action against Justice Sen has to go further, but if the voting pattern in the Upper House holds in the Lok Sabha, he is certain to be removed from office.

The Rajya Sabha’s impeachment debate, which was informative and set high standards,  raised questions that go beyond the misconduct of Justice Sen. There may be doubts about the moral right of politicians, who are perceived to be more corrupt than all others, to sit in judgement over the actions of a judge. But the institutional role of the House is more important than the profiles of individual members, and the House rose to that role.

The need for a more transparent method of appointment of judges and a less tedious process of investigating and taking action against them if they are found guilty received much support in the debate. The inadequacies in the proposed judicial standards bill and the demand to include the judiciary in the  scope of the Lokpal bill should receive greater attention in this context.  The existing processes of appointment and removal certainly call for improvement.

There are issues raised by Justice Sen in his defence that also demand attention.  He  impressed many members and even created the doubt whether the charge against him was exaggerated, but ultimately failed to convince the House of his innocence. The argument that the misconduct he was charged with occurred before he became a judge would not stand.  But his grouse that judges whose conduct was worse than his— he even cited cases— did not have to face the kind of action that he has had to face should not go unnoticed. Others’ wrongs did not justify his, but his complaints about the system make the case for its improvement stronger.

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