A Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi has asked the Kerala High Court to consider lowering the qualifying score for SC/ST candidates for filling up judicial officer posts in trial courts in the state. The recommendation comes against the backdrop of the High Court fixing 35% as the qualifying score in the preliminary examination and 40% in the main examination, and netting just three reserved category candidates, none of whom was found eligible after interview. As a result, 14 reserved category posts lie vacant. Given the chronic shortage of judicial staff , the posts lying vacant is indeed a concern. But that pales in front of the fact that further lowering the bar for Scheduled Caste (SC)/ Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidates will affect judicial efficiency and the quality of justice delivery.
Indeed, the Supreme Court needs to pay heed to its own observation from 2016—a bench headed by then CJI Justice TS Thakur had refused to reverse an order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court against lowering the qualification marks for SC candidates in the Haryana judicial services examination saying, “For selecting a judge there has to be a minimum qualification. …just because one is a Scheduled Caste, the same cannot be done away with”. When just three SC candidates qualified for the viva voce in the recruitment for 119 civil judge vacancies in Haryana—against 22 reserved posts for SC candidates who had to score 45% to qualify—a petition seeking the lowering of the threshold for SC candidates was filed at the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The petition cited the apex court’s ruling in the Ram Bhagat Singh matter of 1990, that if “a percentage is fixed for qualification which would normally be unattainable by the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes determined on an objective basis, it would not be possible to ensure equality of opportunity”. Importantly, the Ram Bhagat Singh ruling had come in a scenario where 55% had been fixed as the qualifying threshold for all categories. The Punjab and Haryana High Court dismissed the petition saying, “In most of the recruitment process, there has been a fair representation from amongst different reserved categories and there have been occasions when open category posts also remained unfilled for want of suitable candidates. …Needless to say that, in the matter of appointment to Judicial Services, efficiency and quality is non-negotiable”. In other words, the High Court had ruled that posts lying vacant was far more preferable than diluting the standards and rigour required of the judiciary, and the Justice-Thakur bench had concurred. If aspirants who likely completed their legal education with the crutch of reservation need a lowering of qualification marks to make it to the posts that have been reserved for them, it portends a fall in the overall standards of the judiciary.