Justice Karnan, the recalcitrant judge

It is doubtful if sending Justice Karnan to jail is the most judicious way of restraining him

It is singularly unfortunate that the Supreme Court’s efforts to discipline Justice C.S. Karnan of the Calcutta High Court has had to end in a six-month prison term for contempt of court. With the recalcitrant judge making it a habit to bring the institution into ridicule by his aberrant behaviour, the court probably had few options but to act in defence of its reputation by holding him guilty of contempt of court — a finding that is unexceptionable. He had not only flung irresponsible charges of corruption against several judges, but also sought to make political capital out of his Dalit identity. He had repeatedly sought to pass purported judicial orders in his own cause. His arrest will undoubtedly mark an abysmally low moment in the country’s judicial history. Therefore, it remains a pertinent question whether the court could not have waited for his imminent retirement so that the country is spared the unseemly event of a high court judge being arrested while in office. It was only last week that the court itself doubted whether Justice Karnan was of sound mental health. After all, it is highly unusual for a judge to charge other Supreme Court judges with committing ‘atrocities’ against him and threatening to prosecute them — an act that could only do harm unto him. As expected, Justice Karnan declined to subject himself to a medical examination by a team of mental health professionals as directed by the court.

Having gone so far as to question his mental soundness, it would have been pragmatic to let things be until his retirement, due in a month. After all, Justice Karnan, having been denied judicial work, posed no threat to the administration of justice. At the same time, it was increasingly clear that nothing was really going to chasten him or prevent him from challenging the Supreme Court’s authority. It is doubtful whether sending him to jail will achieve anything other than possibly encouraging him to play martyr and portray himself as a victim in his ‘war’ against judicial corruption. That the only punishment that the highest court could come up with against a sitting high court judge was imprisonment speaks volumes about the total absence of any disciplinary mechanism short of impeachment to deal with contumacious conduct by a member of the higher judiciary. It is a pity that a case of proven misbehaviour did not attract the attention of the political class, which alone can initiate impeachment. The court’s gag order on the media from reporting Justice Karnan’s purported orders and comments only adds to the sense of unease about the whole episode. The lesson here is that while the collegium system had been unable to stop someone of his nature entering judicial office, maintaining internal discipline in the judiciary is an equally vexing issue.

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