Legal fraternity laments untimely retirement of Justice S. Muralidhar
Tributes are pouring in following the somewhat early retirement of one of the best judges in the country but who has been denied the opportunity to serve in the Supreme Court
Justice S. Muralidhar, who retired as the Chief Justice of Orissa High Court, and Justice Akil Kureshi are two of the several deserving judges in recent years who have been denied elevation to the Supreme Court while arguably less deserving judges and judges junior to them became judges in the Supreme Court.
In both the cases, the Supreme Court collegium, it is believed, felt it would be futile to recommend their names because the union government would sit over their names. The Modi government has been instrumental in stalling several appointment of judges beginning with senior advocate Gopal Subramanium. While Subramanium withdrew his consent, as did a few others who were upset at the delay after they had given their consent, in several cases the union law ministry has refused to clear the names reiterated by the collegium for the second time.
The ‘negative perception’ of the government about some of these judges and lawyers has usually indicated that they were judges with a spine.
Lawyers and judges, while paying their tribute to Justice Muralidhar, have been unanimous in holding that he deserved a place in the Supreme Court, which currently has two vacancies. Two more Supreme Court judges, both elevated from the Delhi high court, are also due to retire later this year. By depriving the judiciary of the services of a pro-litigant and pro-citizen judge like Justice Muralidhar, the collegium has let the judiciary down, is the prevailing opinion.
Justice Muralidhar in 2010, as judge of the Delhi High Court, was part of a full bench which ruled that the Supreme Court of India and its judges could not be kept out of the Right to Information Act; that judicial independence was both a privilege and a responsibility. The ruling came despite the opposition of the then Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan.
Even earlier, in 2009 he was part of the bench which decriminalised homosexuality in the Naz Foundation case.
Even lawyers who should have been aggrieved by Justice Muralidhar ruling against them, would say that the judges’s reading and ruling were correct. When the collegium transferred him to Punjab and Haryana High Court, lawyers at the Delhi High Court protested and stayed away from courts for a day demanding that Justice Muralidhar, who was appointed a judge in the Delhi High Court in 2006, be allowed to stay.
His farewell at the Delhi High Court drew an unprecedented number of lawyers, a sight which lawyers vouch, had never been seen in the Delhi high court before or after his transfer.
The union government also stalled his transfer to the Madras High Court as its Chief Justice despite the recommendation of the collegium, forcing it to recall the recommendation. One of the several rulings which turned the ruling party and government against Justice Muralidhar was striking down the transit remand of civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha.
In yet another ruling, the judge had sternly directed Delhi police to files cases against hate speech and lodge an FIR against BJP’s Delhi leader Kapil Mishra. The same day at a midnight hearing at his residence, Justice Muralidhar and Justice Bhambhani had directed Delhi Police to rescue 22 patients stranded in a small hospital Al-Hind in the riot-hit part of Delhi and reach them to a bigger hospital.
Justice Muralidhar had also convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar and others for their alleged role in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984; he had sentenced 16 policemen to spend the rest of their life in prison for killing 38 Muslims in Hashimpura. He had also upheld the rights of slum dwellers and ruled against Uttarakhand police and the state government in a fake encounter case.
His administrative skills were appreciated by Supreme Court judges in recent months with Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud lauding his work in Odisha as a model for other states. Justice Muralidhar was instrumental in setting up virtual high courts in all the districts of the state, assigning benches to hear cases from the districts online.
He will also be remembered for implementing the vision of a former Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, Justice Vineet Saran, who had mooted a law museum. The museum under the guidance of Justice Muralidhar has now been developed further and renamed ‘Museum of Justice’.
Even as the legal fraternity lamented the untimely retirement of a brilliant, erudite and bold high court judge, writing for the
Bar & Bench senior advocate Sanjoy Ghose summed up the overwhelming sentiment in the following lines: “It is not Murali’s loss at all. He has earned his mention in the books of history as one of the most courageous judges India has had in recent times. If anything, it is a loss for us, the Bar and the Bench. The shameless capitulation of the Collegium, which could not even ensure that he was allowed to preside as Chief of a chartered High Court, when the executive just junked their recommendation to transfer him to Chennai, is another nail in the coffin of judicial independence.”