Brand-new DELHI: After the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) was struck down, the revived collegium headed by Chief Justice H L Dattu cleared the names of 24 additional judges in six high courts for appointment as permanent judges and the Centre played ball by flying the files to Kolkata to get the President’s assent.
Scotching apprehension that the Union government may play tough after its decision to bring transparency in appointment of judges through the NJAC was rejected, the law minister promised the CJI that the government would send the files to the President to get his signature.
“It was my moral duty to see that these 24 additional judges did not suffer uncertainty because the Supreme Court is on Dussehra break,” the CJI told TOI from Bengaluru.
These 24 additional judges had clearance from the high court collegium concerned for appointment as permanent judges. But their appointment could not be made permanent because the SC collegium was in a limbo owing to a five-judge constitution bench rejecting the constitutional validity of NJAC. The SC bench had extended their additional judgeship by three months which was ending by the end of this month.
Some of the additional judges, who get appointed for a period of two years and then get either confirmed, get their tenure extended or are terminated, were facing the exit this week and the CJI had to act fast given the paucity of time.
The Dussehra break was coming in the way of calling a meeting of the collegium as the senior-most SC judge, Justice T S Thakur, was in the US and other judges too were on vacation. The CJI wasted no time and contacted those who were part of the collegium by email and over phone and sought their consent for sending recommendation to the government to appoint all 24 as permanent judges.
Law minister Sadananda Gowda responded to the CJI’s urgent request and promised that the recommendations would be flown to Kolkata on Tuesday to get the President’s assent. The additional judges made permanent were in high courts of Gauhati, Bombay, Andhra Pradesh, Calcutta and Jharkhand.
On Monday, the President appointed Justice Tinlianthang Vaiphei, senior-most judge of Gauhati HC, as its acting chief justice after the retirement of Justice Karanam Sreedhar Rao, who again was the acting chief justice. The President also approved a recommendation of the SC collegium on re-appointment of an additional judge in Bombay High Court.
The Centre’s promptness in acceding to the CJI’s request put to rest the fear of a stand-off between the judiciary and the government after the SC struck down the 99th constitutional amendment and the enabling legislation NJAC Act.
The task was made more difficult by the timing the of the NJAC judgment, which was delivered on the last working day before the SC closed for a week for Dussehra. Most SC judges, who come from outside Delhi, plan their home vacations during these small breaks.
Even though the CJI has sorted out the present crisis, a bigger challenge awaits Justice Dattu, and Justice Thakur who will succeed him as CJI in December – filling 397 vacancies in the total sanctioned 1,017 posts of judges.
But it is not solely about filling vacancies. In most high courts, there is no infrastructure – court rooms, staff and residential accommodation – to allow the collegium to appoint Brand-new judges even if the sanctioned strength allowed it.