Not just blind Justicen

Raman Swamy

News agency reports from Chennai say that a group of advocates held a demonstration  in his support, proclaiming that he is being victimised and protesting against his impending arrest. The implication of this is that the judge in the centre of an unprecedented confrontation with the higher judiciary is not alone – at least a few lawyers practising in the Madras High Court, where he was a sitting judge till his transfer to Calcutta High Court last year, are willing to come out openly to speak in his defence.

By all accounts, the police from three different States are in a tizzy, frantically trying to ascertain his whereabouts so that he can be arrested and sent to jail for six months for contempt of court, as per the orders of the apex court.

Ironically, 61-year-old judge is due to retire in June. If only all concerned had shown patience, his term would have come to an end in the normal course. But that was not to be. Instead it has snowballed into a serious stand-off played out under the gaze of the public in a manner which does little to enhance the image of the judiciary.

The judiciary, especially the highest court, is virtually the last institution in the country which
still commands respect. This is in sharp contrast to the erosion in institutional credibility in every other sphere, whether it is Parliament, the bureaucracy or the media.

In its wisdom, a seven-judge Bench of the Supreme Court chose to act against Justice Karnan through a series of decisions that have seldom, if ever, been even contemplated. On May 9, the apex court made judicial history. It ordered the arrest and imprisonment of a sitting high court judge. This, at a time when certain recent controversies were already casting a shadow – such as the incidents involving Justice Markandaya Katju, Justice Soumitro Sen and Justice P D Dinakaran.

Some legal luminaries, while endorsing the importance of upholding the majesty of the law above all other considerations, feel that the Karnan episode has underlined the need to have a proper mechanism to deal with problems of this nature. The reality is that other than impeachment, there is little that can be done against a judge who is considered errant.

In 1995, the Supreme Court, in Ravichandran Iyer vs AM Bhattacharjee, had framed guidelines on how to deal with misconduct of judges. The court had admitted to a “yawning gap” that exists in the laws. Thus, it felt there was a necessity to establish a process that would help remedy the problem short of impeachment. 

A glance at the timeline of the Karnan saga, including his own background and the sequence of events that have culminated in the current corrosive confrontation, may be useful:
Chinnasamy Swaminathan Karnan was born on June 12, 1955 in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district to Dalit parents. He was initially named Karunanidhi but changed his name to Karnan to avoid being confused with DMK leader M Karunanidhi. His father was a highly respected teacher who was awarded the President’s award for his contributions to education.

After completing his L L B from Madras Law College in 1983, he practised law and was appointed
as a judge in the Madras High Court in 2008. In 2011, he alleged victimisation and harassment because he was a Dalit. In 2015, he accused the Chief Justice of the High Court of interfering with his judicial work. The Supreme Court intervened and he was transferred to Calcutta High Court.

In February 2016, Justice Karnan stayed his own transfer to Calcutta HC but later apologised and accepted he had passed an “erroneous order due to his mental frustration”. However, since then he has complained of caste prejudice against him and also levelled corruption charges against certain fellow judges. He has addressed letters to various authorities in this regard, including the Prime Minister.

The Supreme Court took suo moto cognisance of his actions and served him with a contempt notice. He was relieved of his duties and asked him to return judicial and administration files to the Court Registrar.

In these troubled times, the Judiciary is the only pillar of Democracy in which the public still reposes faith and the last bastion of sanity, rationality and justice. It is the responsibility of all concerned to preserve and protect the institution’s integrity and reputation.

Vol. 49, No.48, Jun 4 - 10, 2017