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New NGT head was silent as SC judge when govt hiring retired judges was questioned

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Goel had presided over a bench which received a concept note from amicus curiae which said tribunals should not be ‘heaven for retired persons’.

New Delhi: At a time when the higher judiciary has been under relentless scrutiny over judges’ conduct, Supreme Court justice A.K. Goel’s appointment as the National Green Tribunal chairman Friday has raised eyebrows in legal circles.

Just two months back, Goel had presided over a bench where amicus curiae Arvind Datar submitted a concept note that denounced the practice of appointments of judges to commissions and tribunals after retirement. But the judge had remained silent on the issue.

“The tribunals should not be heaven for retired persons and appointment process should not result in decisions being influenced if the government (is) itself a litigant and the appointing authority at the same time. There should be restriction on acceptance of any employment after retirement,” the concept note said.

Datar also suggested setting up an autonomous oversight body for all tribunals.

However, in his judgment, Goel made no observation on the suggestion.

“Broadly approve the concept of having an effective and autonomous oversight body for all the Tribunals with such exceptions as may be inevitable. Such body should be responsible for recruitments an oversight of functioning of members of the Tribunals,” is all Goel said.

The post of the NGT chairperson had been lying vacant for over six months, since the retirement of justice Swatanter Kumar on 20 December last year. There has been speculation that the post was kept vacant by the government for Goel to retire and take over.

The government’s notification Friday appointing Goel came hours after he delivered his farewell speech.

Differing views

Goel’s appointment has reignited the debate over verdicts influenced in favour of the Centre in lieu of post-retirement benefits.

In 2012, then leader of opposition Arun Jaitley had suggested an embargo on judges accepting post-retirement jobs to tribunals or commissions. BJP leader Nitin Gadkari had concurred with Jaitley and suggested a cooling off period for at least two years post retirement.

“My suggestion is that for two years after retirement, there should be a gap (before appointment), because otherwise the government can directly or indirectly influence the courts and the dream to have an independent, impartial and fair judiciary in the country would never actualise,” Gadkari had said.

Jaitley highlighted this point two years before the BJP came to power, and suggested the conduct of the judges should be regulated. The pre-retirement judgments influence their prospects after they retire, he had said.

In view of this, it must be pointed out that justice R.K. Agrawal, who also retired earlier this year, accepted a position as president of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. However, justice J. Chelameswar, who was in news for holding the January press conference to raise issues at Supreme Court, announced that he would not accept a post-retirement job and quietly retired.

Contentious judgment

Some of Goel’s judgments in his decades-long career have been contentious. The latest such judgment came on 20 March this year. To prevent ‘misuse of the law,’ the apex court bench of Goel and U.U. Lalit added ‘safeguards’ to avoid immediate arrests under provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Despite an intense backlash, Goel defended his judgment in and out of court. Invoking history, Goel noted that the violation of fundamental rights during the Emergency prompted him to write the SC/ST judgment.

“On the imposition of Emergency there were suspension of fundamental rights, this led to the assumption of great arbitrary power by police and the administrators. Unchecked, one can say. But my experience was that the courts were very justice oriented, even in that atmosphere. And if you show that it was because of Emergency this innocent person is arrested or this action is taken, straightaway the court would grant him bail,” said Goel in his farewell speech Friday on the lawns of the apex court.

This report has been corrected and updated to reflect that Justice Goel had not written against government hiring retired judges. The judge had only presided over a bench which received a concept note against government hiring retired judges and had not made any comments. The error is regretted.

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