Why is the Collegium of Supreme Court judge in the spotlight?

Context – The recent controversy over the transfer of the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice Vijaya Kamlesh Tahilramani, to the Meghalaya High Court has once again brought to the fore a longstanding debate on the functioning of the ‘Collegium’ of judges that makes appointments and transfers in the higher judiciary. While sections of the Bar have questioned the transfer as well as the lack of transparency about the exact reason, the Supreme Court (SC) has issued an official statement that the Collegium indeed had cogent reasons and that these could be revealed, if necessary.

How did the Collegium system come into being? It is a system under which judges are appointed by an institution comprising judges. The Collegium of judges is the Supreme Court’s invention and not discussed in the Constitution. The ‘First Judges Case’ (1981) ruled that the “consultation” with the CJI in the matter of appointments must be full and effective. However, it rejected the idea that the CJI’s opinion, albeit carrying great weight, should have primacy. The Second Judges Case (1993) introduced the Collegium system, holding that “consultation” really meant “concurrence”. It added that it was not the CJI’s individual opinion, but an institutional opinion formed in consultation with the two senior-most judges in the Supreme Court. Third Judges Case (1998) expanded the Collegium to a five-member body, comprising the CJI and four of his seniormost colleagues.

What is the procedure followed by the Collegium? The President of India appoints the CJI and the other SC judges. As far as the CJI is concerned, the outgoing CJI recommends his successor by seniority. The Union Law Minister forwards the recommendation to the Prime Minister who, in turn, advises the President. For other judges of the top court, the proposal is initiated by the CJI. The CJI consults the rest of the Collegium members, as well as the senior-most judge of the court hailing from the High Court to which the recommended person belongs. The Collegium sends the recommendation to the Law Minister, who forwards it to the Prime Minister to advise the President. The Chief Justice of High Courts is appointed as per the policy of having Chief Justices from outside the respective States. The Collegium takes the call on the elevation. High Court judges are recommended by a Collegium comprising the CJI and two senior-most judges. The proposal, however, is initiated by the Chief Justice of the High Court concerned in consultation with two senior-most colleagues. The recommendation is sent to the Chief Minister, who advises the Governor to send the proposal to the Union Law Minister.

Transfer of judges – The Collegium also recommends the transfer of Chief Justices and other judges. Article 222 of the Constitution provides for the transfer of a judge from one High Court to another. When a CJ is transferred, a replacement must also be simultaneously found for the High Court concerned. There can be an acting CJ in a High Court for not more than a month. In matters of transfers, the opinion of the CJI “is determinative”, and the consent of the judge concerned is not required. However, the CJI should take into account the views of the CJ of the High Court concerned and the views of one or more SC judges who are in a position to do so. All transfers must be made in the public interest, that is, “for the betterment of the administration of justice”.

Criticism: Opaqueness and a lack of transparency, and the scope for nepotism are cited often. The mystique of the process, the small base from which the selections were made and the secrecy and confidentiality ensured that the process led to nepotism.” Embroilment in public controversies and having relatives practising in the same High Court could be common reasons for transfers. In respect of appointments, there has been an acknowledgement that the “zone of consideration” must be expanded to avoid criticism that many appointees hail from families of retired judges.

Way forward

  1. NJAC to be implemented
  2. Collegium’s resolutions are posted online
  3. New memorandum of procedure to infuse accountability.