An unseemly affair: The Karnan episode shows judicial reform must go beyond...

An unseemly affair: The Karnan episode shows judicial reform must go beyond clearing case backlogs


An unprecedented decision by a seven judge Supreme Court bench to convict a sitting judge of Calcutta high court, CS Karnan, and sentence him to six months imprisonment foregrounds worrisome systemic issues. The apex court’s verdict and events which preceded it indicate that there are gaps in the judiciary’s functioning which need to be addressed. Specifically, there are questions about the efficacy of the current collegium system of appointing judges and the handing down of gag orders by the judiciary.
Karnan has had a history of bizarre behaviour going back many years. He frequently levelled capricious charges against other judges who were his colleagues. As a judge at Madras high court, he precipitated a crisis by passing strictures against its then Chief Justice. When, in a move to resolve the crisis he was transferred to the Calcutta high court, he issued a suo moto order against his own transfer before sense prevailed. This experience starkly exposed a shortcoming in the current framework to discipline a judge, for incidents that may not require a cumbersome impeachment procedure. This gap in the statutory framework needs to be addressed.
The Karnan episode also shows up the inadequacy of filters in the collegium system which enabled his appointment as a judge despite his evident incapacity to hold the post. It is inconceivable that an effective system for appointing judges would have permitted him entry, leading to the current embarrassing situation the judiciary finds itself in. It is time for the judiciary to reflect on the infirmities of the existing system.
The gag order on media that accompanied the apex court’s order on Kannan – asking the media to refrain from reporting any future statements made by him – suggests, however, judicial disinclination for such reflection yet. Free speech is often challenged in India but the apex court has stood by the principle of freedom of expression, a critical freedom in any democracy, in the past. But the gag order on media is tantamount to prior restraint. It is an unhappy situation when the judiciary becomes a vehicle to restrain expression. The Karnan episode shows that judicial reforms ought not to be limited to finding ways to clear case backlogs. It should also be about finding better ways to appoint judges and discipline errant ones among them.


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