The executive-judiciary face-off in Andhra Pradesh

DH Dateline | The executive-judiciary face-off in Andhra Pradesh

In a democracy, friction between the executive and judiciary is taken as a healthy sign

Representative image/Credit: iStock images

An unsavoury tussle between the executive and the judiciary was brewing for quite some time in Andhra Pradesh. It came to the fore in a rather contentious manner when a letter was shot off by Andhra Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy to the Chief Justice of India S A Bobde. A few days later, on October 10, the letter was made public by Reddy’s principal adviser Ajeya Kallam at a press conference. Serious allegations were made against judges of the Andhra High Court and the second senior-most judge of the Supreme Court, Justice N V Ramana. The letter alleged that the High Court was being used to “destabilise and topple the democratically elected government.” The CJI ordered an in-house inquiry and the Chief Justice of the Andhra High Court Jitendra Kumar Maheshwari was transferred to the Sikkim High Court. 

In a democracy, friction between the executive and judiciary is taken as a healthy sign. On the contrary, it would ring alarm bells if both the wings of the State are on the same page or sailing in the same boat. No doubt, political parties are sure to play politics, but the impartial judiciary should remain insulated from such issues and decide cases on merits. Ultimately, the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary work with an aim to serve the people in accordance with the principle of the Constitution and the law. It cannot be forgotten that a continuous tussle between the branches has given us some of the landmark decisions, such as the basic structure doctrine of the Constitution and the Collegium system for appointment of judges.

To return to the present crisis of distrust, the Andhra High Court has definitely put spokes in the wheel of the Jagan government by setting aside a series of schemes or decisions taken by the latter.

In his letter, the CM had vented his frustration, detailing how his government was trying to probe “acts of malfeasance and misfeasance by his predecessor N Chandrababu Naidu and people associated with him between 2014-19.” He accused Justice Ramana of being close to Naidu. He also alleged that Justice Ramana’s two daughters were beneficiaries of questionable land transactions in the new capital city of Amravati, proposed by Naidu. Reddy went on to charge Justice Ramana of “influencing the sittings of the HC, including the roster of a few judges”, demonstrating “bias in the state judiciary towards TDP”. He stressed on the need to maintain “neutrality of the state’s judiciary”.

Expectedly, Reddy’s letter spurred immediate angry reactions from various Bar Associations, which condemned the charges as contemptuous and demanded action against the Chief Minister. A number of PILs were also filed before the apex court, which, however, declined to take any contempt action against the CM for his scandalising allegations. Staying away from the controversy, Attorney General K K Venugopal had earlier refused to accede to a request for contempt action against the CM, saying that the letter was addressed to the CJI who was already seized of the matter. He felt it would be inappropriate for him to preclude the determination of the CJI.

Justice Ramana, who is next in line to become the Chief Justice of India, has so far not gone public with his defence. Before the emergence of the letter, he had observed at a public programme that judges are self-restrained and do not speaking out in their own defence. They are being construed as soft targets for criticism and are becoming victims of juicy gossip and slanderous social media posts. 

It is not out of place here to point out that the Chief Minister himself has been facing over 30 criminal cases. Justice Ramana has been heading a bench which heard a PIL by BJP leader and advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay and gave a slew of directions to expedite hearing in cases faced by sitting and former MPs and MLAs.

But to attribute motives to the charges levelled by the CM in what he considered his “unpleasant and painful duty” to the personal cases faced by him would be too simplistic. Still, the CM could have shown restraint howsoever bizarre the High Court’s decisions could have been, say for example a probe ordered into breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the state. The Supreme Court can exercise its appellant jurisdiction in all such cases.

Our Constitution-makers assigned the judiciary a special role to ensure that the executive and the legislature do not overstep their limits. In policy matters, the judiciary normally avoids intervening. An elected government faces constant scrutiny by the media. It can be thrown out of power due to periodic elections, if people withdraw their trust. The judiciary, for its part, can certainly examine the legality and constitutionality of the decisions of the elected government under the well-enshrined doctrine of separation of powers. However, the judiciary is not expected to impose its own version of good governance in the name of rule of law in exercise of its power of judicial review.

For that matter, the High Court should keep in mind the recent words expressed by the Supreme Court that “Courts are repositories of immense public trust... but it is equally important to realise that courts operate within the boundaries defined by the Constitution. We cannot be called upon to govern. For we have no wherewithal or prowess and expertise.” 

An elected government is entitled to commit errors or achieve successes in policy matters so long as constitutional principles are not violated in the process. The courts cannot take it upon themselves to look into the priorities of the government.