Uninspiring tenure

The change of guard at the Supreme Court, with Justice S H Kapadia taking over as the chief justice in place of Justice K G Balakrishnan who retired on Tuesday, is an occasion to look at the functioning of the country’s judiciary, especially the higher judiciary. The status and credibility of the judiciary is still high but it has taken a knock in the recent past, through controversies, scandals about the conduct of judges, and the inability or failure of the of the top judicial leadership to address the problems that are dogging the system. The Supreme Court has an illustrious lineage of chief justices who gave new directions to the judiciary, expanded the scope of legal rights, introduced new concepts and practices and worked to reform the system.

But unfortunately Justice Balakrishan’s tenure may not be considered so distinguished and impressive, as his helmsmanship was seen to be lacking in dynamism and creative and positive thinking. He rather acquired a negative and obstructionist image. In some of the decisions and actions during his stewardship of the highest court, and in his views about issues  and positions on them, he came through as a defender of orthodoxies and technicalities with a sense of cynicism and  helplessness aiding inaction. On occasions he seemed to distance himself from issues and problems, suggesting that the solutions lay elsewhere. Even a streak of evasiveness, lack of interest and recourse to generalities could be discerned in some responses. The CJI should not only be earnest, but be seen to be so too.

The contentious issue of bringing the office of the CJI under the Right to Information Act and the handling of the charges against the chief justice of the Karnataka high court P D Dinakaran have not brought laurels to the highest court. The CJI is part of a system and cannot be solely blamed for its inadequate responses to problems. But as the leader of the system and its visible symbol, he has the highest responsibility to ensure that convincing and effective solutions are found for them. Many of the problems like mounting case arrears and judicial delays are systemic, for which judges alone cannot find solutions. But many of the issues on which the judiciary has recently come into adverse limelight are of a different order and relate to the conduct of judges. A healthier and more proactive approach to the system with all its limitations might have produced better results.

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