Judges must know their limits, not act like emperors: Supreme Court

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Judges must not behave like emperors, the Supreme Court observed on Friday as it condemned the practice of summoning government officials by courts “at the drop of a hat and to exert direct or indirect pressure”.

The bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hemant Gupta took a grim view that some of the high courts in the country have developed a practice of calling government officials routinely which, it said, is against public interest as many important tasks entrusted to such officials get delayed.

“Judges must know their limits. They must have modesty and humility, and not behave like emperors. The legislature, the executive and the judiciary all have their own broad spheres of operation. It is not proper for any of these three organs of the state to encroach upon the domain of another, otherwise the delicate balance in the Constitution will be upset, and there will be a reaction,” the bench said, quoting from a 2008 judgment of the Supreme Court.

“The line of separation of powers between Judiciary and Executive is sought to be crossed by summoning the officers and in a way, pressurising them to pass an order as per the whims and fancies of the court,” the court noted while hearing an appeal of the Uttar Pradesh government against an order of the Allahabad high court in a service matter.

In the case relating to posting and back wages of a medical officer of the state, the high court had passed certain orders which are being contested by the UP government before the top court. In February, the bench had stayed the order of the high court to give back wages to the medical officer but the high court did not hold its hands and still summoned the health secretary of the state in a contempt case against the state government.

Disapproving of such orders, the top court held that it is time to reiterate that public officers should not be called to the court unnecessarily. “The dignity and majesty of the court is not enhanced when an officer is called to court. Respect to the court has to be commanded and not demanded and the same is not enhanced by calling public officers,” it said.

The bench emphasised that the presence of public officers comes at the cost of other official engagements demanding their attention and may eventually take a toll on the tasks they are supposed to do for the public.

“The public officers of the executive are also performing their duties as the third limbs of the governance. The actions or decisions by the officers are not to benefit them, but as a custodian of public funds and in the interest of administration, some decisions are bound to be taken,” the court said.

The bench added that a court can always set aside a decision which does not meet the test of judicial review but summoning officers frequently “is liable to be condemned in the strongest words.”

Citing the example of the judiciary, the bench underscored that court proceedings also take time since there is no mechanism of fixed time hearing.

“The courts have the power of a pen which is more effective than the presence of an officer in the court. If any particular issue arises for consideration before the court and the advocate representing the state is not able to answer, it is advised to write such doubt in the order and give time to the state or its officers to respond,” the bench maintained.

The top court also set aside the orders of the high court initiating contempt proceedings against the state government as well as the directive to pay back wages to the medical officer. It noted that the high court was wrong in granting relief to the medical officer who did not join his posting for 13 years on the pretext of not receiving his joining order in 2002. The court said that it was not open to the medical officer to defy the order of transfer on the ground of non-communication when more than 100 medical officers were transferred by the same common transfer order and then he chose not to join where he was posted.

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