Cloud over CJI-in-waiting: AP CM's charges against SC judge mar his prospects

CM YS Jaganmohan (YSJR) complained to CJI Bobde that the AP High Court was being "used to destabilise and topple his democratically-elected government."
Cloud over CJI-in-waiting: AP CM's charges against SC judge mar his prospects
A representative picture.TBC

This is the question being asked: Will the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice N Ramana, take over as the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) after the present incumbent, CJI, Sharad Arvind Bobde, retires on April 23? Above-mentioned is the latest scandal due to rock India's Judiciary -- reputed as the most powerful court in the world.

CJIs are recognised as 'watchdogs' over excesses committed by the executive (or the legislature). However, previous incidents of scandals have tainted the reputation of the top court.

If pledged as the next CJI (as he will), it would mean that both, the Modi government and the Supreme Court, have chosen to ignore the allegations levelled by the Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jaganmohan Reddy against Justice Ramana.

YS Jaganmohan (YSJR) had complained to CJI Bobde that the AP High Court was being "used to destabilise and topple his democratically-elected government."

However, YSJR also has 31 corruption cases against him, most of which are under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Also Read | Delhi Bar backs Justice NV Ramana against Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jaganmohan Reddy

YSJR allegedly lodged this complaint against Justice Ramana right before the latter was, to pass orders in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking decriminalisation of politics by speeding-up criminal cases against YSJR, MPs and MLAs. This incident has directly affected YSJR who, it is alleged, wants to blackmail Justice Ramana.

And to make it worse, the President of the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Republican Party of India, Anil Kumar Borugadda, has also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in November, seeking debarring of Justice Ramana. He alleged the present CJI Sharad Bobde did not act speedily on YSJR's complaint.

The gist of the complaint is that YSJR's predecessor N Chandrababu Naidu, who was allegedly very close to Justice Ramana helped his family (specifically his two daughters) to make money by buying land in the new capital -- ­Amaavati.

This move was made in return for Justice Ramana allegedly engineering the roster of the AP High Court. Which would ensure that certain 'sensitive cases', in which the YSJR govt had high stakes, were placed before high court judges who would pass orders against the govt.

But one year after the country's youngest High Court of Andhra Pradesh was set up, its Chief Justice, Jitendra Kumar Maheshwarihad swapped places with his Sikkim High Court counterpart, Justice Ajoy Kumar Goswami on December 31, 2020.

It was after YSJR put his allegations against Justice Maheshwari on the affidavit was this incident reported. According to his directions, it later moved to the Apex court.

How do lawyers become judges?

A lawyer is recommended for a judgeship of the high court by the chief justice of the said-court.

His name goes to the Union Ministry of Law and Justice for verification, and later it escalates to the CM and the Governor of the State.

An inquiry filed to the Intelligence Bureau for the lawyer's reputation, is sent to the Supreme Court collegium later as a report.

So, if the 'four wise judges' of the Apex court reiterate the name, the President issues a warrant for his elevation to being a judge. While the Supreme Court struck down the 99th Amendment of the Constitution in the NJAC case to reiterate its authority in appointing judges, the Modi government had made it clear that it will insist on playing a decisive role on who can become a judge or who cannot. Something which was anathema to the Supreme Court in the NJAC case.

Back to the controversy

YSJR reiterated his allegations on affidavit that Justice Ramana's daughters were beneficiaries in the Amaravati land scam case and the senior Supreme Court judge had engineered AP High Court's roster.

The letter states that advocate, Komatla Srinivasa Swamy Reddy, has alleged Dammalapati Srinivas, who served as Advocate General during the N Chandrababu Naidu govt, used his influence to gather the information about the plan for the new capital at Amaravati.

It also mentions that he purchased vast tracts of land in the premium area of the capital region.

The purchase went through multiple benamidars (front persons), and relatives before December 2014, when the capital's plan was first made public.

(The first two pages of the FIR)
(The first two pages of the FIR)Dr Olav Albuquerque

The complainant claimed that the land value in the villages, included in the capital's plan, rose dramatically once the information was made public.

The same FIR alleged that Srinivas "entered into criminal conspiracy" with various purchasers, including Justice Ramana's two daughters Nuthalapati Sritanuja and Nuthalapati Sribhuvana, to buy this prime land.

Both the daughters, many of Srinivas's family members and alleged accomplices, are noted as the tenth and eleventh accused persons in the FIR.

The complainant-advocate alleged between August 13, 2014, and December 9, 2014, Srinivas, with his accomplices, bought land in different mandals of Vijayawada and Guntur with "clear (prior) knowledge that those lands would fall either within the Core Capital Region or within the Capital Region Development Authority limits…"

The FIR further adds:

"Some of the lands purchased were going to be adjacent to the Core Capital Region, and such lands were purchased to avoid their acquisition under (the) Land Pooling Scheme so that all those lands would be under the enjoyment of purchasers and would, in turn, pay rich dividends".

What gave some credence to these allegations was that the former advocate general, Dammalapati Srinivas, filed a writ petition in the AP High Court to restrain the state police from arresting him in connection with the land scam.

He asked for a court-monitored probe into allegations of irregular land allotment in Amaravati during the Naidu regime. Srinivas denied the allegations of amassing properties in the capital area of Amaravati. Alleged CM YSJR had ordered all the investigative agencies under his government "to create evidences (sic) against him, by phone-tapping, shadowing him and those close to him and intimidating his relatives."

Dammalapati alleged as advocate-general that he had appeared for the Naidu govt against YSJR in multiple corruption cases.

One of these caused YSJR to be (allegedly) jailed for 16 months.

Above-mentioned was why YSJR wanted to seek revenge against him, alleged the former advocate-general.

The allegations against Justice Ramana took a curious twist with a fresh special leave petition filed at the Apex Court by a former acting Chief Justice of the AP High Court. Justice V Easwaraiah, seeking to quash a probe into his casual phone conversation, was recorded without his knowledge or consent.

V Eswaraiah retired as AP High Court's acting chief justice in 2013. Later, the UPA govt made him Chairperson of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) for a three-year term in September 2013. Since then, he's played the role of an activist in the backward class movement in AP. He alleged that the former CM Naidu had opposed two backward class advocates and two scheduled caste advocates from being elevated as high court judges.

The same paragraph accused Eswaraiah of maligning the high court and supporting the YSJR government under the guise of the Backward Classes Association -- blaming the state government for "not happily accepting the verdicts of the high court given in various cases against" it.

But in a dramatic volte-face later, the high court dropped this offending paragraph which embarrassed Justice Easwaraiah and Justice JK Maheshwari. Justice Maheshwari then was transferred to the Sikkim High Court.

Phone-tapping of acting chief justice:

During the pendency, a Special Leave Petition filed by Justice Easwaraiah in the SC, a suspended district munsiff magistrate of Andhra Pradesh, S Ramakrishna, sought to intervene in which he annexed the recording of a private conversation between Justice Eswaraiah and himself. The discussion was about many things, including the petition seeking a probe into Rajasekhar's death, and the "misconduct" of a sitting judge of the SC. The sitting judge, the leaked conversation makes it clear, was Justice Ramana.

Justice Eswaraiah's grievance was that the high court, (without issuing a notice to him), proceeded to order an enquiry into the conversation on the basis that it disclosed a "conspiracy."

The conspiracy was to slander the chief justice of Andhra Pradesh and a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court, and therefore, interpreted it as a plot against the judiciary.

He also alleged that Ramakrishna defamed him by leaking the conversation.

"I have come in public in various press conferences to expose the misconduct of the Supreme Court judge for his special proximity with the erstwhile government of N Chandrababu Naidu. The relatives of a senior sitting Supreme Court judge were involved in these (land) transactions. This was information that I had received and (for which) I was trying to collect evidences," Justice Easwaraiah declared.

The judge said he had publicly spoken about the so-called "misconduct" of Justice Ramana and his "nexus" with the erstwhile Naidu govt. Secondly, the "misconduct" was the subject matter of an enquiry by the cabinet sub-committee regarding suspicious property transactions for unlawful gain. In this "conspiracy", Justice Eswaraiah was the subject matter of an FIR, which names Dammalapati, and 12 accused, including two daughters of Justice Ramana.

"Terming such a conversation to be some sort of a criminal conspiracy to destabilise the judiciary which needs an investigation is totally unwarranted," Easwaraiah claimed. The constitution of such an enquiry committee – led by former Supreme Court judge, Justice RV Raveendran – without notice to him, and without allowing the intervention of the suspended magistrate (with whom Justice Eswaraiah had the 'leaked' phone conversation) was against natural justice, he submitted.

Dubious precedent cited by high court:

Curiously, the AP High Court, while setting up the inquiry into the leaked conversation, has relied as precedent on the Supreme Court setting up a 'one-man' committee (headed by Justice AK Patnaik).

A similar committee earlier was brought in to unravel the "larger conspiracy" behind the sexual harassment allegations made by a Supreme Court employee against the 46th CJI, Ranjan Gogoi.

Although this commission submitted its report, the Supreme Court refused to divulge it to the public, or even hear the matter further, despite an order by the court on the judicial side stating otherwise.

It is blatantly false to cite this case as a precedent by the AP High Court to justify it's trying to unravel the truth about an alleged conspiracy within the judiciary to defame a senior judge like Justice Ramana.

The Supreme Court refused to entertain objections against setting up the Patnaik commission, that is parallel to inquiries into the sexual harassment charges against the sitting CJI would not ensure an independent probe.

As expected, the in-house inquiry committee headed by Justices SA Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra dismissed the complaint against the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi while also refusing the woman a lawyer to represent her. The judges refused to give their report to the complainant. But they ordered her reinstatement which proved that her allegations appeared bona fide.

Justice Eswaraiah wants the Supreme Court to examine whether the high court is justified in ordering an enquiry into a recorded private conversation between himself and the suspended munsiff magistrate on their mobile phones when neither are parties to the proceedings before the high court in a pending petition.

He also sought to know whether the high court can order such an enquiry based on intervention by a third party.

Justice Eswaraiah has asked for an interim stay on the high court's order dated August 13 2020. It directed a probe into the contents of the pen drive. This move leaked the conversation submitted to the court in the suspended munsiff-magistrate's application.

The verdict is worth watching because it may impinge on how CJI Sharad Bobde decides on YSJR's complaint against Justice Ramana.

Meanwhile, Justice Ramana has neither denied nor confirmed YSJR's allegations. He continues to pontificate that judges should deliver justice fearlessly.

Conveniently, forgetting that when judges refuse to deny allegations against them, they continue to be under a cloud of suspicion.

Dr Olav Albuquerque holds the M.Sc, LL.M and PhD degree in Media Law from the University of Mumbai. He is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay High Court. He has been practising law for the last 15 years.

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