A strong message

Last Updated 18 May 2017, 19:26 IST
If you thought Justice Markandey Katju’s brush with contempt of court piqued public interest, make way for Justice Karnan! Creating judicial history, a seven member bench led by Chief Justice J S Khehar sentenced Justice C S Karnan to six months imprisonment with immediate arrest. Justice Karnan’s brazen defiance and absolute disregard for the judiciary is a betrayal of the nation.

Since January 2017, the apex court had to battle a complex internal challenge. Justice Karnan, a sitting high court judge, wrote an open letter to the prime minister accusing 20 sitting and retired Supreme Court and high court judges of corruption. Slapping contempt charges, the apex court stripped him of administrative and judicial powers, sending a strong message that none will be spared including a judge, if judiciary is humiliated.

Justice Katju had criticised the apex court’s judgement in the Soumya murder case blogging “even a student of law knows this elementary principle that hearsay evidence is inadmissible.” Contempt charges against him were dropped after he tendered an unconditional apology to the court.

Baradakanth Mishra’s case was perhaps the earliest when a judicial officer was hauled up for contempt. In 1971, a full bench of the Orissa High Court convicted Mishra, an additional district and sessions judge, under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 for declining to follow a binding precedent of the high court.

With six contempt proceedings against him, the bench opined that he deserved maximum sentence possible under the law. The Supreme Court, concurring with the high court’s verdict, reduced the sentence since the officer was at the end of his judicial career, directing him to pay a fine of Rs 1,000.

Upholding dignity of courts and public faith in the judiciary is one of the cardinal principles of the Contempt of Court Act. Any act that defies, disrespects or insults the judiciary attracts contempt.  “Commenting on the judgement of a court which is in public domain does not amount to contempt; it is the right of every citizen to express his views as long as he doesn’t make scurrilous personal imputations attaching improper motives to the judgement”, avers former Chief Justice of India M N Venkatachaliah. In 1988, then Union law minister P Shiv Shankar made scathing remarks that the judges of the Supreme Court had favoured anti-social elements who have found their haven in the top court. He was hauled up for contempt.

In 1972, then Kerala chief minister E M S Namboodiripad faced contempt charges for making vitriolic remarks attributing class biases to judges. The Kerala High Court set aside his conviction stating that the ends of justice were served by exposing the appellant's ignorance about the true teachings of Marx and Engels (behind whom he shelters) and fined him Rs 50.

It is a thin line that distinguishes how courts would view contempt while honouring the fundamental right of freedom of expression. It is here that the magnanimity and maturity of a judge plays a critical role in upholding the dignity of the institution. In case of a personal attack on the judge not affecting judiciary, the judge has the option of invoking defamation laws and not contempt of court.

Indian laws have evolved out of European legal systems. The Contempt of Court Act of 1926 was repealed in 1952. The absence of constitutional right to personal liberty and freedom of expression paved the way for the Contempt of Courts Act in 1971 which also ensured safeguarding the dignity of our courts.

In 2002, the National Commission to review the working of the constitution recommended introduction of 'truth' as defence to contempt of court. In 2006, the Act was amended to include justification by truth as a valid defence.
Eminent jurists have opined that the keyword is “justice,” not “judge.” The judgement of the famous Mulgaonkar case in 1978 authored by Justice V R Krishna Iyer is an exhaustive narrative on issues governing contempt. “The judiciary cannot be immune to criticism. Judges have frailties; after all, they are human, they need to be corrected by independent criticism.”

Serious consequences

Cautioning the judiciary against indiscriminate use of contempt laws, Justice R C Lahoti and Justice K T Thomas of the apex court observed in 2000, “the jurisdiction to punish for contempt is summary but the consequences are serious. It is not personal glorification of a judge in his office.” Scathing remarks and criticisms have been condoned by courts while accepting a genuine apology which is universally found to be the safest course of action when facing contempt.

Former Chief Justice of India P B Gajendragadkar observed in a judgement, “wise judges never forget that that the best way to sustain the dignity and status of their office is by the quality of their judgements, fearlessness, fairness, objectivity of their approach and by the restraint, dignity and decorum which they observe in their judicial conduct.”

That was what was expected of Justice Karnan. His actions exceeded all limits of upholding the sanctity of the judiciary and the solemn chair he occupied. Perhaps he employed the wrong methods while raising issues of what he deemed was corruption. His behaviour of storming into a chief justice’s court in Chennai and interrupting proceedings did not bode well.

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, during Justice Karnan’s case hearing, told the apex court: “those within the judiciary who are guilty of disrespecting the institution must be dealt with sternly. If you don’t act now, what will happen later? The court has been more than patient, and it is time to restore public confidence in the judiciary for the sake of upholding the rule of law”.

The apex court was left with no option but to deal with it sternly, else it would be damaging to the judiciary. Justice Karnan’s, is, one hopes, an exception, a ‘rarest of rare’, case. Judges, after all, should remain faithful to the trust reposed in them by the nation, both in integrity and behaviour.

(The writer is a columnist and researcher)
(Published 18 May 2017, 19:25 IST)

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