The Supreme Court on Tuesday reproached a former district judge from Madhya Pradesh for “flirting” with a junior woman judge, and said such conduct was “unacceptable” in the judiciary.
“Such conduct by a senior judge for a junior lady judge is not acceptable at all,” said an SC bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, as it heard an appeal by the retired judge against the disciplinary proceedings, initiated suo motu (on its own) by the Madhya Pradesh high court.
While his petition emphasised that there could not be any inquiry after the woman judge had chosen to “settle” the matter with him, the high court defended its action on the ground that his conduct was unbecoming of a judge and an example had to be set.
During the hearing, senior advocate Ravindra Shrivastava, appearing for the high court, also read out a WhatsApp conversation between the former district judge, who retired last year, and the woman judicial officer, who was posted under him in 2018.
These messages were about how the former wanted to “touch” her, have an affair with her like “husband and wife”.
HT is not naming the retired district judge because there has been no decision on his guilt or otherwise, and his petition has challenged the initiation of the inquiry itself.
Shrivastava pointed out that the woman officer had made a complaint and also recorded her statement against her senior, but later withdrew from the inquiry under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, saying she had settled the matter.
He contended that the male judge was a senior judicial officer and there must have been some kind of pressure on the woman judge that made her retract.
According to Shrivastava, even though the inquiry under the sexual harassment act could not conclude after the woman judge opted out, the gender sensitisation committee of the high court had the authority to take a suo motu note of the demeanour by the former district judge and recommend a disciplinary inquiry, as it did in November 2019.
He presented before the bench the district judge’s statement to the committee — the judge had admitted the WhatsApp conversation with the woman officer, and called it “flirting”.
At this, senior advocate R Balasubramanium, representing the retired district judge, said that his client might have gone “overboard”, but he could not be proceeded against when the complainant has herself said that she did not want any inquiry.
He also questioned the timing of the complaint, pointing out the district judge was being considered for appointment to the high court when the allegations surfaced.
But the bench declined to entertain such contentions. “We understand these are two adults talking. And you thought it is a private conversation. But you have not just gone overboard. Your WhatsApp messages are offensive and improper,” the Supreme Court bench told advocate Balasubramanium.
It said that the former district judge should withdraw his petition and face the consequences of the disciplinary proceedings lest the court pass “some sweeping observations against him”.
Balasubramanium was given a week to consult the former judge and come back with instructions on withdrawing the appeal.