Govt-collegium tussle unhealthy

With the elevation of four more judges to the Supreme Court soon, the top court will have its full sanctioned strength of 31 judges. The court has not had its full complement of judges at any time in the recent past. It has always had some vacancies. The appointment of judges to the court has not been a smooth and easy process, especially in the last few years when the Modi government opposed many of the recommendations made by the collegium for elevation to the court. Of the four judges whose names were recently recommended by the collegium, the government returned two — those of Jharkhand High Court Chief Justice Aniruddha Bose and Gauhati High Court Chief Justice A S Bopanna — for reconsideration. The collegium has stuck to the names and reiterated its recommendations, noting that there is “nothing adverse regarding the competence, conduct or integrity’’ of these judges, and the government will have to accept them now.  

The government had argued that the elevation of these two judges would go against the principle of regional representation because their parent high courts — the Calcutta High Court and the Karnataka High Court — were well represented in the Supreme Court. But the collegium said that while the principles of representation and seniority were important and had been considered, the main consideration was merit. The collegium has maintained this in the past also whenever the government opposed its recommendations. But this has not prevented the government from raising the same issue again. The government has the right to return any recommendation as per the existing procedure, but when it frequently does so on not very convincing grounds, it gives rise to the suspicion that it has other reasons which it cannot state in public. In the process, appointments get delayed and the judge’s seniority is adversely affected. The case of Justice KM Joseph, whose appointment was cleared only after a protracted stand-off between the government and the collegium, is an example. 

The collegium system is not the best system for appointment of judges. But the government’s handling of its recommendations has not been credible and honourable, either. The system needs to be improved but there is no movement from either side in that direction. It is a welcome development that the Supreme Court will have its full quota of judges. But the high courts and lower courts have large numbers of vacancies, and appointments to these have been slow. Vacancies in the lower courts affect common people and litigants more than those at the apex level. Therefore, the filling up of the vacancies at the lower levels should receive greater attention and priority. 

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