New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to interfere with the appointment of L Victoria Gowri as a judge of the Madras High Court, even as she was being sworn in after the SC collegium earlier recommended her name.
A special bench that assembled at 10.30am – five minutes before her oath-taking ceremony – said that it found no reason to interfere in the matter. A detailed verdict containing the reasons shall follow, the bench said.
Some bar members of the Madras High Court had earlier written to Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, seeking recall of the recommendation made for the appointment of Gowri as an additional judge. They alleged that she made hate speeches against Christians and Muslims.
During the hearing on Tuesday, the bench of justices Sanjiv Khanna and BR Gavai said that the political affiliation of a candidate or public expression of his or her views does not impact their work as a judge. The two judges recalled recent reiterations made by the collegium in which the appointment panel rejected the government’s objections to three prospective judges who had aired their views against government policies in public. The remarks came after some lawyers said that the woman lawyer had links to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Justice Gavai gave his own example and said that before he became a judge, he too had a political background. “But I don’t think that had in any way affected my decisions,” he told senior advocates Raju Ramachandran and Anand Grover, who appeared for a section of lawyers from the Madras HC who challenged Gowri’s elevation.
The petitioners alleged that Gowri had delivered two speeches described by them as “hate speech” and was, therefore, ineligible to become a judge. Besides, she had strong links with the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre, they said. According to them, the SC collegium’s decision to recommend her name was not an informed one since the material related to her hate speeches was not placed before it.
The top court collegium led by CJI Chandrachud had cleared Gowri’s name along with that of five more appointees. One of the six nominations was a case of reiteration.
As Gowri’s appointment kicked up a storm, with lawyers from the Madras HC writing to the collegium to reconsider her recommendation and, thereafter, moving a petition in the apex court, the government on Monday morning issued a notification to appoint Gowri and two more lawyers as judges of the Madras HC, holding back the other three recommendations. One serving judicial officer in the district court was also cleared.
This notification came minutes within Ramachandran mentioning the petition against Gowri’s appointment before the court of the CJI, who agreed to list the case on Friday. Ramachandran rushed back to the CJI’s court after the appointment notification was made public. On his request, the CJI posted the matter for an urgent hearing on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Madras HC registrar general issued the orders for Gowri’s swearing-in-ceremony on Tuesday morning at 10.35 am. A supplementary list issued by the top court registry showed the petition against Gowri’s appointment was listed as item 38 before the bench of justices Sanjiv Khanna and MM Sundresh.
Drama preceded the petition being heard in the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning. While the lawyers were preparing to argue before justice Khanna’s bench, they were informed early morning that it would not be heard by his bench as justice Sundresh had recused from the bench. They were told that the court will take up the matter at 9.15 am.
Therefore, the team of the counsels reached Court 1 at the designated time. Upon waiting there for some time, they were asked to go back to justice Khanna’s court, which, they were told, would assemble at 10.30 am to hear the case. However, instead of justice Sundresh, justice Gavai took up the matter.
While the hearing was in progress, Gowri was administered oath.
During the hearing, the bench said that it is only “conjectures and surmises” that the material was not available to the SC collegium on Gowri. Even the consultee judges would have given their opinion, the bench said.
“There are consultee judges from the state High Court. Both of them are local judges. They have worked in the state of Tamil Nadu. We have to presume that they have the knowledge of the facts”, said justice Gavai.
The bench also said that people with political backgrounds have been judges even before.
As justice Gavai spoke of his political background, he also referred to jJustice VR Krishna Iyer, who was a minister in the communist party-led Kerala government, but never let his political views influence his decisions as a judge.
Ramachandran said it was not a question of political opinion, but of hate speech.
Justice Khanna said that the fact of the matter was that all these materials must have been known to the SC collegium, to which Ramachandran said that he was doubtful.
He reminded the court of CJI Chandrachud’s statement on Monday that said “the collegium has taken cognisance of what was drawn to our attention or came to our notice after we formulated our recommendations on the recommendation of the… collegium of the Madras High Court”.
But the bench disagreed and asserted that the consultative process had certainly taken place. “All that you are saying is this particular information may not be available… Actually, the assumption is all these factors would have been considered”, said Justice Khanna.
“And the process originates from the High Court… two senior-most judges of the High Court. You presume they are not aware of the antecedents of a candidate” before they make up their minds, asked Justice Gavai.
Senior advocate Manan Kimar Mishra, who is also the chairman of Bar Council of India, intervened and submitted that there was no complaint pending against Gowri before the State Bar Council. Hence, the opposition was uncalled for, he contended.
Grover, also appearing for the petitioners, said that while the collegium members and consultee judges would be aware of Gowri’s antecedents, in terms of personal conduct, what a person says on YouTube or in an interview may not be known.
Ramachandracn said the collegium recommendations were on 17 January, 2023, while the material came to light on 1 February. He claimed the warrant was issued in a hurry.
The bench was, however, firm and said that between 1 February and now, the collegium must have looked into the material. “…If any member of the collegium had any reservation or anything, they would have taken it up,” he said, refusing to issue any judicial directions to the collegium.
Ramachandran’s submission failed to convince the bench, which told him that the scrutiny process for appointments was a very “robust” system. To assume that the collegium did not take all the facts into account may not be appropriate, it said.
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