Justice C.S. Karnan, who in 2017 became the first serving Judge to be convicted for contempt, described the proceedings against Advocate Prashant Bhushan as unconstitutional and said it was high time there was a transparent system in place to deal with corruption charges against sitting or retired judges.
In an interview, the former Madras and Calcutta High Courts judge argued that Bhushan’s tweets expressed his views on the existing situation prevailing in the judiciary. In doing so, he exercised his constitutional right to free speech and expression. The retired judge extended his support to Bhushan, even though the advocate was among those who welcomed the Supreme Court’s order to send Justice Karnan to jail for six months.
“Judges are not above the law. They are equally answerable to the public as members of other institutions. They are bound to follow the Indian Constitution and at the same time adopt a transparent working methodology. After all, they get their salaries from public taxes,” Justice Karnan said.
A constitution bench of seven judges led by then Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar had on 9 May 2017 sentenced Karnan for contempt. The order came after months of a stand-off between him and the top court that saw the two sides issue a string of orders against each other. In one order, Justice Karnan had sentenced CJI Khehar to life imprisonment under the SC/ST Act for taking cognisance of the issue against him.
The controversy began after Justice Karnan, in January 2017, wrote a letter to the prime minister alleging corruption charges against sitting judges. The seven-judge bench began suo-motu contempt proceedings against him and, in February, pronounced him guilty.
On 10 March the court issued non-bailable warrants against Justice Karnan and withdrew his judicial work through an order after he refused to comply with the top court’s direction to appear personally in the proceedings.
‘Proceedings reflect inconsistency of Top Court’
After Justice Karnan was sentenced, Bhushan had tweeted: “Glad SC finally nailed Karnan for gross contempt of court. He made reckless charges on judges & then passed ‘absurd’ orders against SC judges.”
In a fresh tweet Friday, Bhushan reiterated his stand and said Justice Karnan, apart from making absurd allegations against his colleagues, had abused his judicial powers to jail top court judges.
Justice Karnan, however, declined to share his views on Bhushan’s comments against him, saying he was more concerned about the law. He also refused to comment on the lack of public outrage in his case, unlike the one witnessed in Bhushan’s case.
According to him the Indian Constitution is the parent law, which binds every citizen, including the judges. “When the parent law allows free speech, how can the courts prohibit it,” he asked.
Justice Karnan faulted the reasoning given by the court to convict Bhushan and said what the advocate has pointed out in his tweets were facts.
“I wonder how Bhushan broke the law with his statement and also which part of his tweet has brought insult to ‘milords,” the former judge said.
He was even critical of the different yardsticks adopted by the courts to decide contempt cases, saying it is a reflection of its inconsistent approach.
“In my case they constituted a seven-judge bench but in this (Bhushan) it’s three-judge. There are some cases where two-judges benches have heard contempt cases. This shows there is no fixed procedure followed to deal with contempt-of-court matters,” he said.
‘Need a system of open enquiry against judges’
Justice Karnan did not subscribe to the view taken by another three-judge bench led by Justice Arun Mishra, in a 2009 contempt case against Bhushan, that it must hear arguments on whether citizens should go public with corruption allegations against judges, especially since an in-house mechanism is there to deal with such complaints.
“I had made a complaint against 20 judges to the Prime Minister, who in return referred the complaint to Justice Khehar. On my complaint otherwise an enquiry was mandatory. But, the CJI chose to constitute a bench on the judicial side to act against me,” the judge said.
He gave other instances where inquiries under the in-house mechanism were either cut short or bore no results.
“Any criminal enquiry against a judge should be an open one. There should be transparency. Public has the right to know and must know what is happening in the judiciary,” he said.