New Delhi: Already grappling with controversies surrounding the appointment of judges, the Supreme Court collegium is now having to deal with discontent, rumours and speculation over its transferring of judges between various high courts.
Lawyers in Delhi are upset after the Supreme Court Collegium, led by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, decided to transfer Delhi High Court judge Justice S. Muralidhar to the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Over in Mumbai, the legal fraternity believes that the collegium’s decision to transfer Bombay High Court judge Justice Ranjit More to the Meghalaya High Court is due to his recent ‘controversial’ judgments, particularly in the Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative (PMC) Bank crisis case.
The decision to transfer the duo, along with Justice Ravi Vijaykumar Malimath of the Karnataka High Court, was taken on 12 February but was made public only Wednesday morning. Only the transfer of Justice Malimath to the Uttarakhand High Court has been free of controversy among the three.
The recent pattern of transfer of high court judges becoming controversial began with the transfer of then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice V.K. Tahilramani.
No reasons were given for her transfer to the Meghalaya HC and the judge had requested the SC collegium to reconsider its decision. The request was denied and Justice Tahilramani resigned from the services.
Shortly after her resignation, however, a bench led by the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi gave CBI the nod to investigate cases that accused her of illegally acquiring properties.
Delhi lawyers to skip work in protest
Reacting to the transfer of Justice Muralidhar, the third senior-most judge of the Delhi High Court, the Delhi HC Bar Association not only condemned it but also passed a resolution to abstain from work on 20 February.
The Delhi HC Bar Association (DHCBA) is demanding that the collegium provide reasons for Justice Muralidhar’s transfer.
“This transfer recommendation has been passed without any reason and thus it seems more punitive rather than a routine transfer. It’s a question of the majesty of the institution. It is not only about this judge but the institution,” said Mohit Mathur, president of the DHCBA.
“The judiciary is a pillar of democracy and we cannot allow it to be broken. No judge should be under the fear that he or she cannot pass orders which may result in them being transferred.”
One of the senior advocates in Delhi claimed that the “pro-litigant” and “pro-citizen” orders passed by Justice Muralidhar may have led to his transfer.
“Issues with Justice Muralidhar have been arising ever since he has been passing pro-citizen and pro-litigant orders. There have been orders where Justice Muralidhar has castigated the agencies for being high-handed in their approach,” the senior lawyer said.
“He was seen to be inconvenient to these agencies. Whenever any pro-citizen or pro-litigant order was passed, these agencies would rush to the SC the very next day to get a stay as if the heavens were falling,” the lawyer alleged. “This was only when he was trying to secure the life and liberty of individuals.”
It was Justice Muralidhar who had convicted members of the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) for their role in the Hashimpura massacre and Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case.
He is also among the few judges who has done away with the convention of judges being addressed as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordship’. In fact, the high court registry makes a special mention of this in his cause-list.
Speculation in Mumbai
The transfer of Justice Ranjit V. More has not attracted the kind of condemnation that Justice Muralidhar’s transfer has received.
Lawyers from the Mumbai bar, though, suspect that Judge More’s ruling in the PMC bank case may have led to his transfer.
In a PIL related to the crisis, More had recently appointed a three-member committee, headed by a retired HC judge, for speedy disposal and auction of Housing Development and Infrastructure Limited (HDIL) assets and the distribution of such proceeds on priority to PMC depositors.
In the same order, however, the court had also directed that the HDIL promoters Rakesh Wadhawan and Sarang Wadhawan, who are accused in the multi-crore PMC Bank scam, be moved from Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail to their residence.
Senior advocate Milind Sathe, president of the Bombay HC Bar Association, claimed that “certain allegations against the judge could be the reason behind the transfer”.
“Justice More’s transfer was due to administrative reasons. He has been transferred now as a puisne judge to Meghalaya HC as he is not set to be a chief justice there anytime soon,” the senior lawyer said. “However, there were certain allegations against him too and that too could be the reason behind this order.”
Another senior lawyer alleged that the “integrity” of the judge was in question.
“There were allegations questioning the judge’s integrity. His order in the HDIL matter was stayed by the Supreme Court the very next day of it being passed,” the lawyer claimed. “The stay was also granted merely on oral mentioning.”
Another lawyer, Rajesh Andrekar, claimed that More’s order in the PMC case was unheard of. “Has anyone ever heard of a court allowing an accused in jail to be shifted to their home?” asked the lawyer.
All of the lawyers, however, admitted to ThePrint that there has been no written complaint against the judge. “These are only allegations that have not been proven. Hence, it does not mean that they indeed were the reasons behind the transfer,” senior advocate Sathe said.
The only transfer that has made no noise is that of Justice Malimath, the second senior-most judge of the Karnataka HC.
On the contrary, the state bar council believes that the transfer will help the judge’s career.
Anil Kumar, chairman of the Karnataka State Bar Council, said the transfer would help Justice Malimath become a chief justice soon.
“The chief justice of the Uttarakhand HC is set to retire in seven months, so Justice Malimath would be the CJ there as he will be senior-most judge,” Kumar said. “Here, in Karnataka, the present Chief Justice still has two more years of service. The judge was impeccable in his way of handling cases and disposing petitions.”