New Delhi: Supreme Court and High Court judges getting jobs post retirement is not unprecedented. However, a chief justice of the Delhi High Court being handed a post before he demitted office has reignited the debate on such appointments.
Chief Justice of Delhi High Court DN Patel, whose last working day was Friday, will take charge as chairperson of the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) Monday.
The notification of his appointment by the central government, seen by ThePrint, was issued on 4 March, 8 days before his retirement on 12 March. It said that he is being appointed as chairperson of the TDSAT with a salary of Rs 2,50,000 per month for four years, or till he turns 70, or until further orders.
Therefore, the 62-year-old could serve for a term of 4 to 8 years, unless his tenure is cut short by the government through another order.
Justice Patel hails from Gujarat. He enrolled as a lawyer in July 1984 and began his practice from the Gujarat High Court (HC). He was elevated to the bench in March 2004, and took over as a permanent judge of the HC in January 2006. He was transferred to the Jharkhand High Court in February 2009, where he presided as acting chief justice several times for brief periods.
He was finally transferred to the Delhi High Court in June 2019, when he took over as chief justice.
During Justice Patel’s 2.5 year-long tenure as a judge of the Delhi HC, his courtroom witnessed legal arguments in several controversial cases, as well as an unprecedented incident of lawyers shouting “shame, shame!” when a bench led by him denied interim protection to students in connection with the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia university in December 2019.
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The Jamia violence hearing
On 19 December, 2019, courtroom no. 1 of the Delhi High Court erupted with chants of “shame, shame” as two judges — Chief Justice Patel and Justice C. Hari Shankar — walked out at around 2.50 pm.
This happened after the two-judge bench issued notice on petitions demanding a judicial probe into the violence at Jamia during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The bench had heard the petitioners’ arguments for over an hour. The petitioners had demanded interim relief such as preservation of CCTV footage, a direction to the authorities to provide free medical care to the injured students, and a restraint against initiating any legal proceedings against these students.
However, on completion of the petitioners’ arguments, the bench did not grant the interim relief sought, and suggested that the matter be posted for 4 March, 2020. On collective gasps from the courtroom, the bench changed the date to 4 February, 2020.
In an unprecedented incident, the order was met with loud cries of “shame, shame!” from the lawyers and others present in the courtroom. Several lawyers had also burst into tears.
The matter remains pending, and last came up for hearing before the court on 28 February this year. Soon after the incident, chief justice Patel had agreed to refer the allegedly contemptuous incident to a committee. However, there has not been any update on this so far.
The Kapil Mishra case
In another matter related to the anti-CAA protests, then Delhi HC judge S Muralidhar had on 26 February, 2020, pulled up the Delhi Police for failing to register FIRs against BJP leaders Parvesh Verma, Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra for their alleged hate speeches.
Mishra’s pro-CAA rally in Northeast Delhi’s Jaffrabad, where he gave a ‘three-day’ ultimatum to Delhi Police to get the roads cleared of anti-CAA protesters, is alleged to have triggered the communal riots in the national capital that have killed over 40 people.
During the hearing, Justice Muralidhar had ordered the authorities to inform him of the decision taken on the filing of FIRs the next day and listed the matter for hearing at 2 pm on 27 February. Hours later, his transfer to the Punjab and Haryana High Court was notified.
When the case came up before the HC again on 27 February, a bench led by Chief Justice Patel allowed the Delhi Police a month to take a call on the legal course to follow to deal with the hate speeches matter.
The matter remains pending. The Supreme Court had requested the HC in December 2021 to dispose of the petition expeditiously, preferably within three months.
Adani, Alapan Bandhopadhyay, Rakesh Asthana
There were other cases handled by Justice Patel that made headlines.
It was a bench headed by the judge that had rejected a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the appointment of Rakesh Asthana as Delhi police commissioner last October.
After a low-intensity explosion went off at Rohini district court in December last year, a bench headed by Justice Patel had passed orders to ensure security in courts.
Last month, another bench headed by him stayed the notices issued by the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB) in connection with declaring Adani Total Gas Limited’s City Gas Distribution Network for Ahmedabad city, Daskroi and Khurja as a common or contract carrier.
Days before he retired, another bench headed by Justice Patel dismissed a plea filed by former West Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay challenging an order of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) transferring his petition from Kolkata to New Delhi. Bandhopadhyay, who is caught in a Centre-West Bengal tussle, had filed a plea before CAT challenging the disciplinary action initiated against him by the Narendra Modi government last May.
‘Some judges are pro-govt, nothing wrong with it’
In his farewell speech Friday, Justice Patel said that there was nothing wrong with judges having different approaches, with some being “pro-labour or pro-revenue” or “pro-government or anti-government”.
“Some judges are pro-labour, pro-revenue, against revenue, and your matter is otherwise…Nothing is wrong. People are criticising…It is nothing wrong if you are pro-labour, pro-employer, pro-tenant, pro-government, against government, there is always a development of law by these types of judgments,” he was quoted as saying by Live Law.
Not the first such appointment
Justice Patel’s appointment is not a lone instance of a judge taking up other jobs or assignments after retirement.
Former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had made headlines and raised several eyebrows after his nomination to the Rajya Sabha in March 2020, just four months after his retirement.
An analysis of Supreme Court judges who have retired since 1999 — 103 in total (one of them, Justice M. Srinivasan, 63, passed away while in office, in February 2000) — reveals that at least 71 per cent (73 out of 103) took up some sort of assignment after demitting office. The appointments, however, usually come after the judge’s retirement.
TDSAT handles several high stakes disputes in the telecommunication sector. Before Justice Patel, the tribunal was headed by former Supreme Court judge SK Singh. He was appointed to the post in April 2017.
This was earlier a three-year post, but with the passage of the Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance on April 4, 2021, which allowed a four-year tenure to chairpersons of all tribunals retrospectively, Justice Singh automatically got an extension till 20 April, 2021. His tenure was extended by the Supreme Court on several occasions as well, to avert the possibility of the apex telecom appellate tribunal being shut down for litigants.
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