Justice Jasti Chelameswar has stepped up the debate over judicial independence by calling for a full-court discussion on alleged government interference in the appointment of high court judges.

The respected Supreme Court judge has written a damning letter asking Chief Justice Dipak Misra to address the meddling allegations as India’s judiciary endures what is possibly one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.

“I am of the opinion that this matter is now ripe for the consideration of the Full Court on the judicial side, if this institution really is to be any more relevant in the scheme of the Constitution,” Chelameswar wrote in his letter. “Let us also not forget that the bonhomie between the judiciary and the government in any state sounds the death knell to democracy.” 

He said Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Dinesh Maheshwari had initiated a probe against District and Sessions Judge Krishna Bhat at the behest of the Union Ministry of Law and Justice, despite the collegium recommending him for promotion on two occasions.

“To my mind, I could recollect no instance from the past of the executive bypassing the Supreme Court, more particularly while its recommendations are pending, and asking the high court, as if it were an interdepartmental matter, to look into the allegations already falsified and conclusively rejected by us,” wrote Justice Chelameswar.

“The chief justice, establishing himself to be more loyal than the king, acts on it, convenes a meeting of the administrative committee, and decides to reinvestigate the issue, thus burying the previous chief justice’s findings on the same issue, given at our asking,” he added.

Justice Chelameswar expressed concern about the government “sitting” on the judiciary’s recommendations instead of accepting them. “‘Inconvenient’ but able judges or judges to be are being bypassed through this route,” he wrote. Copies of the letter, written on March 21, were shared with 22 other judges of the highest court.

Judges, opposition versus the chief justice

On January 12, Justice Chelameswar and the three other most senior judges of the Supreme Court held an unprecedented press conference that questioned the allocation of cases by Chief Justice Misra.

“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rationale basis for such assignment,” the judges wrote in a letter to the chief justice.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday it was revealed that Opposition parties led by the Congress will try to bring an impeachment motion against Misra. So far 23 members of parliament have reportedly signed the petition; Congress needs 50 signatures for the motion to proceed.

The draft impeachment motion accuses the chief justice “of paying illegal gratification” so that Prasad Education Trust could get legal clearance to set up a medical college.

“Misra submitted a false affidavit in a land acquisition matter while he was still serving as an advocate,” the draft reads.

It further accused Misra of violating the first principle of the Code of Conduct for Judges as he “presided over every bench” dealing with a writ petition in the same bribery case.

“The Chief Justice Dipak Misra dealt on the administrative as well as judicial side, with a writ petition which sought investigation into a matter in which he too was likely to fall within the scope of investigation,” says the petition, accessed by Bar & Bench.

India’s Constitution states that there are only two grounds for the dismissal of judges: misbehaviour or incapacity. A chief justice usually stays in office until the age of 65 and can only be removed through a process of impeachment by Parliament.