Supreme Court Collegium

  Aug 06, 2020

Supreme Court Collegium

Why in news?

A nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court has dismissed a petition seeking a review of its 1993 verdict in the so-called Second Judges Case, which is widely understood to be instrumental in establishing the collegium system of appointing judges in India’s higher judiciary.

The plea to review the verdict in the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association and Another vs Union of India case was dismissed on grounds of an “inordinate delay of 9,071 days in filing the… petition, for which no satisfactory explanation had been offered”.

The Bench of the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S A Bobde, N V Ramana, Arun Mishra, Rohinton F Nariman, R Banumathi, U U Lalit, A M Khanwilkar, and Ashok Bhushan passed the order on October 17, 2019.

Under the collegium system, judges appoint judges — a system that came into being through interpretations of pertinent constitutional provisions by the Supreme Court in the so-called ‘Judges Cases’. The collegium system of appointment and transfer of judges of the higher judiciary has been debated for long, and sometimes blamed for tussles between the judiciary and the executive, and the slow pace of judicial appointments. 

What is the collegium system?

It is the system of appointment and transfer of judges that has evolved through judgments of the Supreme Court, and not by an Act of Parliament or by a provision of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court collegium is headed by the Chief Justice of India and comprises four other senior most judges of the court. A High Court collegium is led by its Chief Justice and four other senior most judges of that court.

Names recommended for appointment by a High Court collegium reaches the government only after approval by the CJI and the Supreme Court collegium. Judges of the higher judiciary are appointed only through the collegium system, and the government has a role only after names have been decided by the collegium.

The government’s role is limited to getting an inquiry conducted by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) if a lawyer is to be elevated as a judge in a High Court or the Supreme Court. It can also raise objections and seek clarifications regarding the collegium’s choices, but if the collegium reiterates the same names, the government is bound, under Constitution Bench judgments, to appoint them as judges. 

But what does the Constitution say on this matter?

Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts are appointed by the President under Articles 124(2) and 217 of the Constitution. The President is required to hold consultations with such of the judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts as he may deem necessary.

Article 124(2) says: “Every Judge of the Supreme Court shall be appointed by the President by warrant under his hand and seal after consultation with such of the Judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts in the States as the President may deem necessary for the purpose and shall hold office until he attains the age of sixty-five years. Provided that in the case of appointment of a Judge other than the Chief Justice, the Chief Justice of India shall always be consulted.”

And Article 217: “Every Judge of a High Court shall be appointed by the President by warrant under his hand and seal after consultation with the Chief Justice of India, the Governor of the State, and, in the case of appointment of a Judge other than the Chief Justice, the Chief Justice of the High Court.” 

How did the collegium system evolve?

The collegium system has its genesis in a series of Supreme Court judgments called the ‘Judges Cases’. The collegium came into being through interpretations of pertinent constitutional provisions by the Supreme Court in the Judges Cases.

FIRST JUDGES CASE: In S P Gupta Vs Union of India, 1981, the Supreme Court by a majority judgment held that the concept of primacy of the Chief Justice of India was not really to be found in the Constitution.

It held that the proposal for appointment to a High Court can emanate from any of the constitutional functionaries mentioned in Article 217 and not necessarily from the Chief Justice of the High Court.

The Constitution Bench also held that the term “consultation” used in Articles 124 and 217 was not “concurrence” – meaning that although the President will consult these functionaries, his decision was not bound to be in concurrence with all of them.

The judgment tilted the balance of power in appointments of judges of High Courts in favour of the executive. This situation prevailed for the next 12 years.

SECOND JUDGES CASE: In The Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association Vs Union of India, 1993, a nine-judge Constitution Bench overruled the decision in S P Gupta, and devised a specific procedure called ‘Collegium System’ for the appointment and transfer of judges in the higher judiciary.

It was this judgment that was sought to be reviewed in the petition filed by the National Lawyers’ Campaign for Judicial Transparency and Reforms.

Underlining that the top court must act in “protecting the integrity and guarding the independence of the judiciary”, the majority verdict in the Second Judges Case accorded primacy to the CJI in matters of appointment and transfers while also ruling that the term “consultation” would not diminish the primary role of the CJI in judicial appointments.

“The role of the CJI is primal in nature because this being a topic within the judicial family, the executive cannot have an equal say in the matter. Here the word ‘consultation’ would shrink in a mini form. Should the executive have an equal role and be in divergence of many a proposal, germs of indiscipline would grow in the judiciary,” it held.

Ushering in the collegium system, the court said that the recommendation should be made by the CJI in consultation with his two senior most colleagues, and that such recommendation should normally be given effect to by the executive.

It added that although it was open to the executive to ask the collegium to reconsider the matter if it had an objection to the name recommended, if, on reconsideration, the collegium reiterated the recommendation, the executive was bound to make the appointment.

THIRD JUDGES CASE: In 1998, President K R Narayanan issued a Presidential Reference to the Supreme Court over the meaning of the term “consultation” under Article 143 of the Constitution (advisory jurisdiction). The question was whether “consultation” required consultation with a number of judges in forming the CJI’s opinion, or whether the sole opinion of CJI could by itself constitute a “consultation”.

In response, the Supreme Court laid down nine guidelines for the functioning of the coram for appointments and transfers – this has come to be the present form of the collegium, and has been prevalent ever since.

This opinion laid down that the recommendation should be made by the CJI and his four senior most colleagues, instead of two. It also held that Supreme Court judges who hailed from the High Court for which the proposed name came, should also be consulted.

It was also held that even if two judges gave an adverse opinion, the CJI should not send the recommendation to the government. 

And why has the collegium system been criticised?

Critics argue that the system is non-transparent, since it does not involve any official mechanism or secretariat. It is seen as a closed-door affair with no prescribed norms regarding eligibility criteria or even the selection procedure. There is no public knowledge of how and when a collegium meets, and how it takes its decisions (opacity in Decision Making Process).

Lawyers too are usually in the dark on whether their names have been considered for elevation as a judge. 

What efforts have been made to address these concerns?

The BJP-led government of 1998-2003 had appointed the Justice M N Venkatachaliah Commission to opine whether there was the need to change the collegium system.

The Commission favoured change, and prescribed a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) consisting of the CJI and two senior most judges, the Law Minister, and an eminent person from the public, to be chosen by the President in consultation with the CJI.

The NDA 2 regime had NJAC as one of its priorities, and the constitutional amendment and NJAC Act were cleared swiftly. A clutch of petitions were subsequently filed in the Supreme Court, arguing that the law undermined the independence of the judiciary, and the basic structure of the Constitution. 

What happened to NJAC, Act?

In 2015, a five-judge Constitution Bench declared as unconstitutional the constitutional amendment that sought to create the NJAC, which had envisioned a significant role for the executive in appointing judges in the higher judiciary.

The Bench sealed the fate of the proposed system with a 4:1 majority verdict that held that judges’ appointments shall continue to be made by the collegium system in which the CJI will have “the last word”.

“There is no question of accepting an alternative procedure, which does not ensure the primacy of the judiciary in the matter of selection and appointment of judges to the higher judiciary,” said the majority opinion.

Justice J Chelameswar wrote a dissenting verdict, criticising the collegium system by holding that “proceedings of the collegium were absolutely opaque and inaccessible both to the public and history, barring occasional leaks”.