Reconsider transfer of Madras HC Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee to Meghalaya HC, lawyers urge SC Collegium

A letter signed by 237 lawyers says Chief Justice Banerjee had passed orders upholding constitutional rights and values of free speech, secularism etc that may well have earned ire of those in power

Representative photo
Representative photo

NH Web Desk

At least 237 lawyers practising before the Madras High Court have written to the five Supreme Court judges who make up the Collegium registering their protest against its recommendation to transfer Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee to the Meghalaya High Court.

The letter said that the transfer is being made within 10 months of Justice Banerjee assuming office in Madras, thereby raising questions on whether the transfer is in "public interest" or for "better administration of justice," the two factors which are taken into consideration for transfers of judges.

The letter also stated that the transfer of Chief Justice Banerjee from a chartered High Court with a sanctioned strength of 75 judges to the High Court of Meghalaya, established in 2013 and with a current strength of two judges, raises disconcerting questions.

"While transfers for better administration of justice may be necessary in principle, members of the Bar have a right to know why a competent, fearless judge and an efficient administrator of a large High Court where more than 35000 cases were filed this year should be transferred to a Court where the total number of cases instituted in a month is on an average 70-75," the letter stated, as per a Bar & Bench report.

Similar transfers in the past have led to speculation about whether they were affected due to improprieties on the part of the concerned judge or whether there were external factors that led to the decision, the lawyers further said.

The letter pointed out that Justice Banerjee had assumed office as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court on January 4, 2021, and is expected to retire in November 2023.

"The recommendation to appoint him as the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court was made less than a year back in December 2020 obviously after considering his experience as a judge of the Calcutta High Court and suitability to head a Chartered High Court. It is therefore inexplicable that in ten months, the Collegium should revise its opinion and recommend that such a person," it was stated.

Such a transfer, the letter said, damages an honest judge’s reputation and tends to lower the image of the judiciary in the eyes of the public.

"It is the secrecy that surrounds the Collegium’s decisions and lack of stated criteria that lead to a perception of arbitrariness. Ultimately, the judiciary as an institution stands to lose," they wrote.

Specifically, on Justice Banerjee's tenure, the letter said that he steered the Court through this unprecedented and difficult period by ensuring that the justice system continues to function unhampered and unhindered by the pandemic.

"Chief Justice Banerjee has consistently sought accountability from authorities at all levels in their discharge of constitutional and statutory duties. He is known to be impartial, open to suggestions from all quarters for improving the functioning of the justice system and has undertaken proactive measures to strengthen the judiciary," the letter highlighted.

Chief Justice Banerjee recently steered a massive gender sensitisation programme covering 1,700 court staff and has assured that the programme would be extended to the judiciary in the state as well, including High Court judges, it added.

It further said that Chief Justice Banerjee has passed several orders upholding constitutional rights and values of free speech, secularism, free and fair elections, right to health and State accountability that may well have earned the ire of those in power.

In a recent order, he dismissed a Public Interest litigation seeking to prevent the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from chairing an advisory committee under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Act until he takes a pledge in front of a Hindu God in a nearby temple.

"In other cases, he castigated the AIADMK government for its inept handling of the pandemic and hauled up the Election Commission for failing to ensure proper COVID safety norms during the recent State elections. Just before the elections, he passed orders directing the Election Commission and the Puducherry police to investigate as to how phone numbers linked to Aadhaar cards of voters that were not available in the public domain, were available with functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party for their election campaign. More importantly, he passed a crucial order to protect media freedom and free speech by granting an interim stay of the provisions of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021," it was pointed out.

In view of the above, the lawyers have requested the Collegium to reconsider its decision to transfer Justice Banerjee.

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