A day before Chief Justice of India TS Thakur is to retire, Union minister for law and justice Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Tuesday that some of Thakur’s comments as CJI were avoidable. Prasad also mentioned that despite a “whisper campaign”, there was never any doubt about justice JS Khehar succeeding justice Thakur.
Speaking at The Indian Express Idea Exchange (detailed transcript will be published in The Sunday Express on January 8), Prasad said his government has the highest regard for Thakur “but some of the public observations by him were avoidable”. Prasad said he was present at the Supreme Court’s Independence Day function at which Thakur “castigated our government on judicial appointment”.
Thakur had expressed his disappointment with PM Narendra Modi’s speech on the Independence Day, saying, “I heard the popular PM for one and a half hours… I expected some mention about justice also, about appointment of judges.”
Prasad said it was “unheard of” for the PM to talk about judicial appointments in such an address. Prasad said his government did not react then and he wanted to make this observation as he wished Thakur good luck now as he is demitting office.
He was aware of the “whisper campaign”, Prasad said, on rumours about justice Khehar being superseded. “Let me say it very clearly and categorically,” the minister said, “the sitting Chief Justice of India recommends the name of his successor. And the day the name came, I sent the file to the PM and he cleared it”. There was never any “doubt about Justice Khehar’s elevation”. He said his government was only waiting for the process. He said the judiciary will be “deeply enriched” by him as the new CJI.
Underlining that his government’s “commitment to independence of judiciary is complete and total”, Prasad also discussed the debate around the National Judicial Appointments Commission. He said his government had accepted the 2015 SC judgment that struck it down but sharing what he called were purely his “intellectual observations as a student of the law and the Constitution”, he questioned the verdict’s reasoning.
Prasad said the crux of the SC’s argument was that as the law minister is part of the NJAC, “therefore, if any judge is appointed of that process, then a litigant having a case against the government” may have doubts about the fairness of the procedure. “And the same (argument was given) about two eminent people,” Prasad said. “If mere presence of the law minister creates doubts about impartiality about selection, then the larger question should be raised.” he said.
“The people of the country entrust the PM” to take decisions as the principal player in selection of important Constitutional positions like the President, the Vice-President, the three service chiefs, the election commissioners, either himself or through his ministers, “but he cannot be trusted to appoint a fair person as a judge”, asked Prasad.
Comparing some of the recent judges from the pre-Collegium era, which came into existence in 1993, he wondered if the collegium had “produced judges” of the “same calibre” as some of the older, “legendary” judges. He later said if the NJAC “judgment is binding on the government, it is equally binding on the judiciary”.
Under the old collegium system “that the Supreme Court (said) is found to be lacking in maybe fairness or other things,” Prasad stated, the government had made 126 appointments. But for the seven vacancies in the Supreme Court, he said, “no names have come to us in the last one year”.
There are still 5,000 vacancies in the subordinate judiciary, in which the government has no role to play, he said.