Parliament is considering a proposal to change the process of appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and High Courts. A Constitutional Amendment Bill has been introduced in Rajya Sabha that enables the formation of a Judicial Appointments Committee (JAC), and states that the composition and functions of the JAC will be detailed in a law enacted by Parliament. The appointments will be made according to the recommendations of the JAC. This body replaces the current process of “consultation” with the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and other senior judges. An ordinary Bill has also been introduced in Rajya Sabha which seeks to establish the JAC. The composition of the JAC will be the CJI, the next two judges of the Supreme Court in terms of seniority, the law minister and two eminent persons. These two eminent persons will be selected by a collegium consisting of the CJI, the prime minister and the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. In case of High Court Judges, the JAC will consult with the chief minister, the governor of the state and the Chief Justice of the High Court. The new system is widening the selection committee. It includes representatives of the executive and senior judiciary, as well as two persons who are jointly selected by the executive (PM), judiciary (CJI), and the legislature (leader of opposition). However, it may be diluting some of the safeguards in the Constitution. At a later date, the composition of the JAC can be amended by ordinary majority in Parliament. [For example, they can drop the judicial members.] This is a significantly lower bar than the current system which requires a change to the Constitution, i.e., have the support of two thirds of members of each House of Parliament, and half the state assemblies. The 120th Constitution Amendment Bill and the JAC Bill are listed for consideration and passing in Rajya Sabha today. Given that these Bills propose fundamental changes to the process of appointments to key constitutional bodies, it is important that there be a wide debate. The Rajya Sabha must refer these Bills to the Standing Committee for careful examination of various issues. I have written a piece on this issue in the Indian Express today.
A recent case before the Supreme Court has once again highlighted the issue of judicial decisions potentially replacing/ amending legislation enacted by Parliament. The case importantly pertains to the judiciary’s interpretation of existing law concerning itself. The eventual outcome of the case would presumably have important implications for the way the higher judiciary interprets laws, which according to some amounts to the judiciary “legislating” rather than interpreting laws. This assertion has often been substantiated by citing cases such as Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997) where the Supreme Court actually laid down the law pertaining to sexual discrimination at workplaces in the absence of a law governing the same. In numerous other cases, courts have laid down policy guidelines, or have issued administrative directions to governmental departments. In the recent case of Suraz India Trust v. Union of India, a petition has been filed asking the court to reconsider its own judgements regarding the manner of appointment and transfer of judges. It has been contended that through its judgements in 1994 and 1998 (Advocate on Record Association v. Union of India and Special Reference No. 1 of 1998) the Supreme Court has virtually amended Constitutional provisions, even though amendments to the Constitution can only be done by Parliament. This question arises since the Constitution provides for the appointment and transfer of judges by the government in consultation with the Chief Justice of India. The two Supreme Court judgements however gave the primary power of appointment and transfer of judges to the judiciary itself. Importantly, one specific question which has been raised is whether the judgements referred to above really amount to amending the relevant provisions of the Constitution. Another question raised which is relevant to this discussion is whether the interpretation by courts can actually make provisions in the Constitution redundant. In its judgement on the 4th of April, the Supreme Court referred this case to the Chief Justice of India for further directions. The outcome of this judgement could potentially require the Supreme Court to define the circumstances when it interprets law, and when it “legislates”. An indication of the Supreme Court's attitude concerning this issue may be gleaned from the recent speech of the Chief Justice of India, Justice S.H. Kapadia at the M.C. Setalvad lecture. The CJI unambiguously stated that: "...In many PILs, the courts freely decree rules of conduct for government and public authorities which are akin to legislation. Such exercises have little judicial function in them. Its justification is that the other branches of government have failed or are indifferent to the solution of the problem. In such matters, I am of the opinion that the courts should be circumspect in understanding the thin line between law and governance..."