Justice Karnan’s Saga will Haunt Higher Judiciary

L’affaire Justice J S Karnan is a unique but lowest of the low case in the judicial history of India. Justice Karnan is the first, and hopefully the last, sitting (now retired) judge of the High Court to have been found guilty of the Contempt of the Supreme Court. He is currently undergoing six-month imprisonment in a Kolkata jail. Justice He evaded his arrest from May 9 but was ultimately arrested on 20th June at Coimbatore (Tamilnadu), nine days after his retirement on 11th June 2017. Like the judges of the Supreme Court, the constitution seeks to maintain the independence of the judges of the High Courts by a number of provisions: (i) by laying down that a judge of the High Court shall not be removed, except in the manner provided for the removal of a Judge of the Supreme Court,(ii) by providing that the expenditure in respect of the salaries and allowances of the judges shall be charged on the consolidated fund of the state, (iii) by specifying in the constitution that the salaries payable to the judges shall not be varied by Parliament to his disadvantage after his appointment except under a proclamation of financial emergency, and (iv) by laying down that after retirement a permanent Judge of High Court shall not plead or act in a court or before any authority in India, except the Supreme Court and a High Court other than the -High Court in which he had held his office.
It must be noted that only the judicial pronouncements made by the Supreme Court are binding in the nature for all High Courts. A judge of the High Court, like the judge of the Supreme Court, cannot be removed except by impeachment by Parliament. The sordid saga of Justice Karnan has, however, shocked and embarrassed the country to no end. The founding fathers of the constitution had never contemplated that a High Court judge would go so berserk in his behavior and conduct as to the extent that a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court had to embark on a method to discipline him that is not provided in the constitution
There are many, who say that Justice Karnan was like a whistle blower. He wrote letters to the President and the Prime Minister pointing out the corruption of some 20 judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts. Shockingly unexpected from him was that he did not produce even a scrap of paper to substantiate his allegations. If the Supreme Court had not instituted suo motu contempt proceedings against Justice Karnan, then it would have immeasurably lowered the image of the higher judiciary.
To say the least, he was not behaving like a High Court Judge at all. In spite of the opportunity afforded to him, he never came forward to prove his allegations. To rub in the wounds, he ran parallel residential court, issued writs and sentenced even the Supreme Court judges to five years imprisonment. Hence, sentencing him was the only choice left for the Supreme Court. Anything else would have been a misplaced sympathy because when the right of the sovereign and of the subject conflicts, the right of the sovereign ought to be preferred. Justice Karnan, however, continued to behave like an extra constitutional authority. Needless to say, that one who is placed out of the law is civilly dead and, therefore, the Supreme Court decision on Justice Karnan echoes the maxim that “the safety of the people is the supreme law”.
What was the most distressing part of the Karnan story was that instead of showing maturity of a prudent person holding the constitutional post of the High Court judge, he always played the Dalit victim card even at the drop of the hat. Legal luminaries of the country were stunned at his behavior and some like; Ram Jethamalani called him a lunatic. Even the Supreme Court thought that something had gone seriously wrong with the mental status of Justice Karnan and ordered for his mental check-up but he refused to submit.
Not unknown to controversies, Justice Karnan had made headlines when he had alleged that he was left out of the Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy as he was from the scheduled caste. He had claimed that all participants were from the upper castes and that his name was removed to make way for a junior judge who belonged to the upper caste. He had then gone ahead and passed an order in May 2015, requesting the chief justice to extend co-operation ‘without any interference with my court’s proceedings and its judicial power to maintain the decorum of the court’. He also requested the chief justice to stop acting in an autocratic manner to protect democracy.
The controversy had taken root with the then chief justice of Madras High Court Sanjay Kishan Kaul constituting the recruitment committee comprising Justices V. Dhanapalan, R. Sudhakar, D. Hariparanthaman, N. Kirubakaran and R. Mala to interview candidates for selection as civil judges. The Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission Chairman and other officers were to be part of the selection committee. But before the interview of candidates was to start Justice Karnan had suo motu passed a judicial order questioning Justice Dhanapalan’s inclusion in the committee. He alleged that latter had produced “bogus educational qualifications” about his bachelor and master’s degree in law, and therefore had no locus standi to conduct the interview. He directed the CBI to inquire into his educational qualifications.
He had also alleged that inclusion of Justices Sudhakar and Hariparanthaman, who hailed from the same community besides being relatives, would send a wrong signal about the fairness of selection. He went on to stay the administrative order of the Chief Justice by restraining the public service commission chairman from conducting the interview of candidates.
Justice Karnan had further ordered that two Judges must be from minority communities, one from Muslim community and another from Christian community, to give a fair representation to all communities in the recruitment committee. On April 17, 2015, Justice Karnan’s suo motu order was placed before a division bench of Justices S. Tamilvanan and C.T. Selvam, which had stayed the April 16 order. Despite the division bench order, Justice Karnan directed the Registry to place the matter before him on judicial side on April 30. On that day, he had reiterated his earlier order and threatened the Chief Justice with contempt of court proceedings. The Madras High Court registry had then moved the Supreme Court seeking stay of the order passed by Justice Karnan. The Supreme Court then stayed the order passed by him. Earlier in January 2014 Justice Karnan had made an attempt to stall his transfer to another High Court. In a letter addressed to the then Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam and the then Chief Justice of Madras High Court R.K. Agrawal he had said that his presence in Madras High Court was important, as he had to prove his allegations against the Chief Justice of India and other Judges of the High Court.
Justice Karnan has been notorious for making serious allegations against his other fellow Judges as well. In May last year, he had alleged that a Judge of the Madras High Court had assaulted an intern within the High Court premises. When the then Chief Justice of India T S Thakur transferred him to Calcutta High Court, he himself stayed it. Then the Apex Court directed Madras High Court Chief Justice to not allow Justice Karnan to deal with any more judicial work. However, after some time, he joined his work in Calcutta High Court but even there he started behaving facetiously.
In fact, the Supreme Court showed extreme restraint in handling the Karnan issue. But still questions are being asked about the handling of his case by the Supreme Court. Can anybody be punished without passing any judgement as it was pronounced on July 5 much later after his sentencing? Does a sentence to the High Court judge without hearing him not fly in the face of the natural justice? Although even if Justice Karnan had been given the opportunity to defend himself, he would not have availed it. Justice Karnan affair should serve as an eye- opener. The Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature must devise effective methods, in harmony with each other, to deal with such situations in future to protect the sanctity of the institution.