The plot thickens in curious Joseph case

The case of Justice K.M. Joseph is getting more and more curious. The Supreme Court collegium appears to be putting on hold its earlier decision to reiterate its recommendation for the elevation of the Uttarakhand high court chief justice to the nation’s highest court. On the face of it, this might appear to be only a postponement of the decision to reiterate the elevation as the most senior judge, Justice J. Chelameswar, is due to retire on June 22. He, along with three senior colleagues, had already placed in front of the public his deep misgivings about the way in which the top judiciary is acting, in seeming supplication to the executive. He has been displaying his anguish at a series of developments in the highest judiciary by declining the normal courtesy of a farewell from the Supreme Court Bar.

There is reason to believe, however, that the collegium would still reiterate its recommendation of the K.M. Joseph elevation, but only along with the names of some other chief justices of high courts, and only in July or later. But until that happens, the impression would remain that the highest judiciary is being dragged needlessly into the public eye because of internal differences that have to do with the manner of constituting benches and the actions of the Chief Justice of India as the absolute “Master of the Roster”. The press conference that the rebel judges had held back in January seems to have placed a number of judges on a confrontational course with the CJI, which fact was reflected again in the naming of a bench comprising the sixth senior judge as head and which heard and dismissed as withdrawn a plea against the dismissal of an impeachment motion against the CJI by legislators of the Rajya Sabha.

It is apparent that the CJI is having his way in the events surrounding the elevation of Justice Joseph, although he had been a party to the decision to elevate him despite his lack of seniority among high court judges on the grounds that he is exceptionally qualified on merit. Of course, merit is not the sole criteria, or so it was made out to be by the Centre’s stand that called for more equitable representation of judges from high courts in the Supreme Court. Unless and until the elevation of Justice Joseph is sent back to the Centre and it is put in a cleft stick on having to accept the reiteration, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the highest judiciary is pawning its independence somewhat. That could lead to the most dangerous situation in the present scene in India, riven by the divisiveness triggered by politicians in their hunt for power.

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