Supreme Court verdict on NJAC triggers government, judiciary face off

New Delhi: The Modi government on Friday suffered a second setback over its pet reforms with the Supreme Court quashing the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) and restoring the collegium system. The move has brought the government and the judiciary virtually on the verge of a confrontation.

Supreme Court verdict on NJAC triggers government, judiciary face off

Earlier this year, the government was forced to withdraw the Land Acquisition Bill in the wake of stiff resistance from the Opposition. The bill to set up the National Judicial Commission for appointment of judges in the higher judiciary, a promise in the BJP manifesto, was passed unanimously in August, 2014. This also coincided with the delay in another major reform programme of bringing uniform goods and services tax.

Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who held the law portfolio when the NJAC bill was passed, described the verdict as a setback for Parliamentary sovereignty, saying that there was 100 per cent unanimity in Lok Sabha while only one MP– Ram Jethmalani– in Rajya Sabha. Congress who conceived the bill, welcomed the judgment saying an independent judiciary was fundamental to a democracy.

Soon after the Court verdict, law minister Sadanand Gowda and Prasad expressed their surprise and said the government will come out with a structured response after examining the judgment in detail and holding consultations.

Later, Prasad held a press conference at the BJP headquarters. “While upholding very dearly the principle of independence of judiciary, I regret to say that parliamentary sovereignty has received a setback today,” Prasad told reporters at the BJP headquarters here. Prasad, a lawyer himself, admitted that the NJAC was a part of judicial reforms that was exercised after deep consideration for over 20 years.

“Various commissions headed by eminent judges, including Administrative Reforms Commission and different parliamentary committees had recommended NJAC,” said the communication minister, who is a lawyer by profession and a former law minister.

Prasad said even former chief justice JS Verma had publicly raised misgivings on the working of the collegium system and had suggested a serious rethink. “Twenty legislatures of the states unanimously approved it despite the continuous divide in the politics of India,” he said. Gowda said a decision will be taken after consulting senior colleagues and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Congress refused to toe the same line as the BJP-led government, which described the bill as the ‘collective wisdom’ of Parliament. Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjiwala said the NJAC judgment implicitly reflected lack of confidence in government which has eroded institutional autonomy and constitutional safeguards over last 17 months. He said the party was happy to note that Constitution Bench of Supreme Court had itself recognised the shortcomings of collegium system s and directed to hear arguments on the issue of ensuring transparency, accountability and responsibility in the first week of November, 2015. The party also cautioned that the issue should not be looked as confrontation between Parliament and judiciary.

However, Goa’s Congress MP Shantaram Naik, who had headed Parliamentary Standing Committee that cleared the National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, 2013 took a different line. He regretted that the judges in the name of interpretations, have laid down their own ‘laws’, disregarding Parliament and at times, go to the extent of giving directions to government to enact a particular legislation in particular manner. He suggested that the President should be empowered to constitute a bench of eminent jurists, outside the judicial framework of the Supreme Court judges, to decide the fate of legislations like this in which the judges’ interests are involved.

While enacting the law, he said Parliament had unanimously echoed its opinion that there was a tremendous element of nepotism of serious nature in the appointment of judges and moreover in no country the judges themselves appoint the judges. Naik further said the Supreme Court had usurped the power of government to appoint the judges in consultation with the judiciary until 1993 when it bestowed upon own judges the power of appointment by the instrument of judicial pronouncement.