Chandigarh: Justice S. Muralidhar has taken over as the second senior-most judge at the Punjab and Haryana High Court, only behind the chief justice in the seniority index, but has been relegated to adjudicating on matters that were being heard by relatively ‘junior’ judges.
The judge, whose transfer from Delhi High Court had created headlines, was Friday sworn in as a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. He is the court’s first puisne judge, and this seniority is reflected in the fact that he now sits in courtroom number 2, just a step down from Chief Justice Ravi Shankar Jha who sits in courtroom number 1.
This has meant that Justice Rajiv Sharma, who was the first puisne judge before Justice Muralidhar’s transfer, has now moved to courtroom 3.
Despite the seniority, Justice Muralidhar has been assigned a bench that will primarily deal with tax matters.
This has raised several eyebrows as Justice Muralidhar will now head the second division bench of the high court.
A fresh roster for the various division benches, finalised by the chief justice on 6 March, states that the second division bench will now hear these issues: All tax matters including writ petitions; appeals under Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and Benami Property Transaction Act; petitions under PMLA, FERA and Foreign Trade Development and Regulation Act; writ petitions challenging the constitutional validity of any act, rules of notification related to tax including municipal laws.
These matters were earlier being heard by the seventh division bench, one that includes judges much lower in seniority to Justice Muralidhar.
Earlier 2nd division bench heard R&AW and IB cases
There was belief in the high court that once Justice Muralidhar joined, he would be allotted the work that the earlier second division bench, then headed by Justice Sharma, was handling.
When Justice Sharma headed the second division bench, it handled some important issues: All cases related to banking transactions; all cases related to intelligence agencies (other than CBI) such as the R&AW, Aviation Research Centre and Intelligence Bureau; all service matters: all writ petitions other than those assigned to other DBs; civil references; criminal appeals; leave to appeal; appeals against acquittal; criminal writ parole DB.
All this work has now been assigned to the third division bench headed by Justice Sharma.
Lawyers slam new roster
Lawyers of the high court are not enthused by the move, with one calling it “an attempt to marginalise” the judge.
“The chief justice has betrayed lack of judicial courage in limiting Justice Muralidhar’s bench to tax matters. It would be naive not to see the grim political reality behind this specific exercise of the chief justice’s powers as Master of the Roster,” said senior advocate Anupam Gupta.
“Justice Muralidhar may well excel in tax matters as in several other fields of law but that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that there is an attempt to marginalise a brave and independent judge and keep him on the sidelines of jurisprudence.”
Karanjit Singh, chairman of the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana, conceded that the chief justice was the Master of the Roster and it was his prerogative to assign work. “But every judge, over the years acquires a certain expertise or talent and that is generally kept in mind while assigning work. This has not happened in this case,” Singh said.
“Assigning the work of the seventh division bench to the bench headed by Justice Muralidhar throws up a big question — why has this been done?” said another senior advocate Rajwinder Singh Bains.
“It seems that politically important cases are to be kept away from Justice Muralidhar. The factors that led to his midnight transfer from Delhi when he was hearing the sensitive Delhi riots case seem to have weighed here as well. One hopes that this is only a transitory phase.”
Senior advocate Ranjan Lakhanpal said given the “judge’s popularity and what he is known for”, Justice Muralidhar should have been assigned tough cases of public interest. “Limiting him to tax cases that were in any case being handled well by less senior benches is a waste of his potential,” Lakhanpal said.
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