Whenever allegations of corruption or sexual impropriety are levelled against Supreme Court judges, they defend themselves by pontificating on judicial independence. The 46th CJI Ranjan Gogoi did precisely this when a woman staffer accused him of sexually harassing her and then getting her handicapped brother-in-law and husband ousted from their jobs.
Mr Ranjan Gogoi reacted by presiding over a three-judge bench to allegedly malign the woman in her absence. The fact that the woman was reinstated before proceeding on maternity leave in January this year seems to vindicate her allegations because the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president Dushyant Dave said, the in-house inquiry was "wishy-washy" and the Delhi police withdrew the criminal complaints against her for inadequate evidence. This leads to the inference that these criminal complaints may have been foisted on her to silence her.
Her fundamental right of having a lawyer to defend her was violated but the former CJI Ranjan Gogoi was given a clean chit by the distinguished judges of the Supreme Court, of which two were women, Justices Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra. The third member of the committee was the present CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde. He reportedly assured the distraught woman that she would get back her job.
Now, the latest scandal to rock the judiciary erupted last month, when the Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) chief minister (CM) Yeduguri Sandinti Jaganmohan Reddy (YSJR) levelled serious corruption charges against the seniormost judge of the Supreme Court, Justice N.V. Ramanna for allegedly interfering in the functioning of the A.P. high court to destabilize the current state government.
YSJR alleged Justice Ramanna engineered the rosters of some judges of the high court to ensure some cases were allotted to them. YSJR further alleged the A.P. high court struck down nearly 100 orders issued concerning policy matters. It is well-settled law that the 25 high courts and the Supreme Court normally does not interfere in policy decisions of any government unless there is a discernible breach of the Constitution. Unconfirmed reports stated that the Andhra CM has already got a show-cause notice for committing contempt of court.
Lawyers said YSJR should have waited for the Chief Justice of India (CJI)'s response to his letter - sent on 6 October levelling the charges - rather than making the contents of the letter public, since he had invoked the CJI's jurisdiction as the administrative head. These lawyers questioned the timing of the allegations against Justice Ramanna.
They alleged the charges have come as Justice Ramana is heading the bench hearing a PIL to fast-track criminal cases pending against former and current lawmakers, which includes Reddy, who is facing 31 cases, of which 11 are being probed by the CBI.
The A.P. high court stayed the investigation into an FIR on a land deal in the construction of the state's new capital Amaravati during the tenure of his predecessor N. Chandrababu Naidu who headed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Justice Ramana's daughters have been accused, as they have been former advocate general. The A.P. high court issued a gag order on the media from reporting on the FIR or its contents which is reprehensible because the people have a right to know how elected chief ministers such as the A.P. CM or those selected but not elected like the seniormost judge of the Supreme Court, Justice N.V. Ramanna function.
The A.P. high court gagged the media from reporting on the FIRs against Justice Ramanna's daughter which is clearly violative of the right to freedom of the media. But this judgment is not binding on the other states which is why the controversy has been discussed threadbare by the national media including news channels.
All the lawyers' associations such as the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) of which the outspoken senior advocate Dushyant Dave is the president, the Supreme Court Women Lawyers' Association and the Delhi High Court Bar Association have backed the beleaguered judge who stated at a condolence meeting of recently-expired Supreme Court judge A.R. Lakshmanan that "judges should be fearless." There is no doubt they should - including displaying their fearlessness and independence by rebutting the allegations of YSJR if they are false.
Justice Ramanna did not respond to YSJR's allegations that his two daughters had benefitted by land transactions which was why the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) of Andhra Pradesh registered an FIR against the duo including former advocate-general Damalapatti Srinivas and 12 others. The charge is that they bought land in the new capital of Amaravati with 'prior classified information' about the location of the capital.
The ACB registered the FIR accusing Srinivas of using insider knowledge to enrich himself and the other accused by buying land at nominal prices which he knew would skyrocket. The agency levelled allegations of corruption, cheating, criminal conspiracy and criminal breach of trust against the accused by citing Sections 409 and 420 of Indian Penal Code besides Section 13 (2) and 13 (1) (d) (ii) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. These are very serious charges of corruption and impropriety against the judges' daughters and the former advocate general who is believed to have been close to Justice Ramanna when he was an advocate general of the state.
As soon as the ACB lodged the FIR in September, the former AG moved the Andhra Pradesh High Court seeking a directive to stop further investigation into the case. As an alternative, the petitioner proposed that any investigation should be conducted under the direct supervision of the high court or a retired high court judge. He also wanted protection from arrest or any other coercive action besides compensation of reasonable amount for intimidating, harassing and threatening him (by the state agencies). The former AG also sought a gag order against the media from publishing any reports relating to the ACB case. In a democracy, the good of the people or lokshahi is the supreme law which overrides the right of powerful functionaries accused of corruption not to be defamed.
Of course, allegations of corruption have to be proved. If not proved, those accused are given the benefit of doubt but that does not mean they are innocent but only that incontrovertible evidence could not be produced. The U.S. Supreme Court laid down as far back as 1966 that public figures like Presidents and senators who are equal to our MPs or ministers must learn to accept inaccuracies in news reports which defame them. This would presumably extend to Supreme Court judges who are also public figures and like Caesar's wife, must have not even a whisper of wrongdoing attached to them or their family members.
During the last ten days, the reaction in the English media has been predictable. It has been pointed out in several news reports quoting lawyers and former judges that YSJR's decision to release the letter is in all probability response to a decision that a bench led by Justice Ramanna delivered last month to speed the trials of MPs and MLAs accused of corruption. YSJR is allegedly facing 31 cases of corruption out of which 11 are being probed by the CBI.
What is perhaps significant is that YSJR would not have accused a CJI-in-waiting of corruption without taking the A.P. cabinet into confidence. He has alleged the A.P. high court has struck down arguably 100 orders passed by his government in what he says is public interest. Courts normally do not interfere in policy decisions taken by the government and are reluctant to strike down orders passed by the cabinet unless these are contrary to law and equity.
Meanwhile, an unknown advocate Sunil Kumar Singh filed a plea in the Supreme Court saying such press briefings against judges should stop. He asked for a show-cause notice to be issued to the accuser A.P. CM YSJR asking why suitable action should not be taken against him.
But Singh forgets that some judges are not paragons of virtue in our land of Ram Rajya where power belongs to the people and not to the judiciary which is selected in secrecy and not elected like our MPs and MLAs, a few of whom have dubious credentials like a few judges.
YSJR has accused Justice N.V. Ramanna's two daughters of being beneficiaries of dubious land transactions within an area which was to be notified as a new capital of Andhra Pradesh by the former chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu (NCN). The 47-year-old YSJR has gone on to allege the two daughters of Justice Ramanna who are his dependents as listed on the official website of the Delhi high court when he was its chief justice, were also beneficiaries of these dubious transactions. Another beneficiary is the former Andhra additional advocate general Dammalapati Srinivas who is believed to be close to both Naidu and Justice Ramanna.
In their defence, these two daughters apparently bought the land before the NCN government came to power and the common man knew that land prices would rise after Amaravati was declared the capital.
When he was the seniormost judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Jasti Chelameshwar who, like Justice Ramanna, also hails from Andhra, had alleged Justice Ramanna's proximity to NCN was well-known. In fact, Justice Ramanna's letter objecting to the elevation of certain lawyers as Andhra Pradesh high court judges allegedly used the same words as those used by NCN. This was highlighted by Justice Chelameshwar.
On October 10, YSJR's principal adviser, Ajeya Kallam, released the letter dated October 6th, sent to CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde, alleging Justice Ramanna who was a judge in the Andhra Pradesh high court between the years 2000 and 2013, still allegedly regulates the affairs of his parent A.P. high court from the Supreme Court. YSJR alleged that this remote control of the rosters of some A.P. high court judges benefits NCN and his Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Justice Ramanna was transferred as chief justice of the Delhi high court in 2013 and elevated to the Supreme Court in 2014. There is no doubt that his two daughters were listed as his dependents in 2013 and 2014 but may have ceased to be his dependents after that and have legally speculated in real estate.
No jurist can know the workings of the Andhra Pradesh high court better than Justice Ramanna because he was an additional advocate-general of the same high court during the NCN regime. It is the government which appoints its advocate general and so YSJR's allegation that Justice Ramanna is known to be close to NCN carries weight. There is no impropriety committed if a judge is close to a politician, provided he recuses from hearing cases involving that politician and does not influence other judges' decisions in favour of that politician.
YSJR's allegations are evocative of the January 12, 2018 press conference when the four seniormost judges of the apex court alleged (without naming him) that the then CJI Dipak Misra was doing more-or-less the same thing which Justice Ramanna has been accused of doing. And that was allegedly allocating sensitive matters to cherry-picked benches with predictable outcomes. Chief justices are the masters of the roster and can allocate sensitive cases to benches of their choice depending on the expertise and experience of those judges.
For the uninitiated, law and justice are not precise like mathematics. A judge appreciates evidence depending on his ideology, life experience and expertise in a branch of law which may sometimes lead to murderers and rapists being acquitted because the 34 judges of the Supreme Court and 1079 high court judges cannot possibly be experts in about 3,125 laws in force throughout India. And we cannot question the wisdom of our CJIs like Justices K.G. Balakrishnan, H.L. Dattu, Dipak Misra, Ranjan Gogoi who sometimes made news for the wrong reasons.
YSJR alleged Justice Ramanna influenced the rosters of certain high court judges so that sensitive cases which affected the TDP's interests were "allocated to a few judges." YSJR said TDP leaders benefitted from such allocations which Justice Ramanna allegedly engineered. He pointed out Justice Ramanna was a legal adviser and additional advocate-general to the previous Chandrababu Naidu led government before he was elevated as a high court judge.
YSJR's letter to CJI Sharad Bobde alleges:
YSJR alleged in June 2019, a sub-committee of his government had submitted a report holding that his predecessor with his accomplices had amassed wealth by fraudulent transactions of about 4,000 acres of land owned by small and marginal farmers. His government had recommended a CBI probe to the Centre. These facts comprise a Special Leave Petition 20524 of 2020 pending in the apex court.
Whether Justice N.V. Ramanna should take over as the 48th CJI is debatable. If he does, it means CJI Sharad Bobde and the Narendra Modi government has overlooked these corruption charges. If he does not, it means the Andhra chief minister has won.
Dr Olav Albuquerque holds the M.Sc, LL.M and Ph.D degree in media law from the University of Mumbai. He is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court. The views expressed in this article are the authors' personal views. The facts and opinions in the article do not reflect TBC's views and take no responsibility for them.