Police team in Chennai to arrest high court judge

Justice C S Karnan, who flew from Kolkata to Chennai on Tuesday, checked out of a guest house on Wednesday and, was yet to be traced till late on Wednesday afternoon

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

NH Web Desk

Justice CS Karnan, the first judge to be sentenced to jail by the Supreme Court, checked out of a state guest house in Chennai on Wednesday, without allegedly paying his bills. The whereabouts of the 61-year-old Calcutta High Court judge are currently not known.

The judge had left his Kolkata residence very early on Tuesday morning, barely four hours before the Supreme Court ordered his imprisonment. While the Kolkata Police deployed at his residence escorted him to the airport where he boarded a flight for Chennai, a team of Kolkata Police arrived at Chennai on Wednesday to execute the apex court’s order.

Justice Karnan, according to media reports in Chennai, was expected to visit the temple town of Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday had sentenced him to six months in prison for contempt of court, a first for a serving judicial officer, in what has been an unprecedented face-off in the higher judiciary.

Justice Karnan refused to attend the contempt proceedings, instead asking for a compensatory amount of ₹14 crore from the seven-judge bench for “disturbing his mind and normal life.”

Meanwhile, opinion appeared sharply divided on the Supreme Court’s order, with a section of jurists saying that the apex court was left with no choice, while another section holding that Justice Karnan, due to retire next month, should have been allowed to retire, or Parliament should have been approached for his impeachment.

Eminent lawyer Indira Jaising felt the Supreme Court’s order had set a dangerous precedent and questioned, “Can contempt powers be used to circumvent the provisions of Article 124 read with Article 217 of the Constitution? Does the removal of judicial functions of a judge not amount to removal of a judge? Does sending a judge to prison not amount to removing him from performance of his duties of office?”

The order in contempt sets a dangerous precedent, where the Supreme Court can remove any judge of a high court or indeed of the Supreme Court in contempt powers and, do indirectly what they cannot do directly. Once the power is asserted, it can be exercised for any reason whatsoever.

Another Supreme Court advocate Namit Saxena, however, said the court had no option, but to issue the order. He held, “Be it a retired judge of the Supreme Court, a multi-billionaire businessman, regular state machinery, or a sitting high court judge, the judiciary carries a tool to execute its orders and to protect its dignity – contempt of court.”

Contempt is chiefly civil or criminal. Civil contempt refers to wilful disobedience of an order passed by a court. Criminal contempt implies any act or expression that scandalises, or tends to scandalise, or lowers, or tends to lower the authority of any court or prejudices, or interferes, or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or interferes, or tends to interfere with, or obstructs, or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.

The following Timeline explains the controversial decisions and behaviour of Justice Karnan, which eventually led to the Supreme Court ordering his imprisonment :

2011: In 2011, Justice Karnan had called a press conference to accuse a fellow high court judge of caste discrimination, on the grounds that the judge who sat next to him “deliberately” touched him with his foot.

He had written to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) complaining of victimisation by the other judges because he was a Dalit.

2013: He had passed a much-criticised judgment which created a new law. Penal law allows a woman to approach a court when a man deserts a woman after pre-marital sex with a promise to marry her. Justice Karnan ruled that apart from the penal law, the woman could claim social status as his wife if the man were 21 and single, and the woman 18 and single, and that the premise of the pre-marital sex was marriage.

2014: He interrupted arguments going on in another courtroom in the Madras HC regarding judicial appointments, demanding to be heard. He launched into an outburst against the unfair and biased selection of judges and said he would file an affidavit on the issue before that court.

2015: Justice Karnan publicly alleged that another judge had sexually harassed an intern in his chamber — an allegation that he has since been unable to substantiate.

He began suo motu contempt proceedings against the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, accusing the latter of harassing and belittling him because he was a Dalit and by giving him “insignificant and dummy” portfolios. The Supreme Court stayed the same.

2016: In February, Justice Karnan then accused Kaul of corruption, following which the top court transferred him that month, prompting him to issue a stay order. When a two-judge Supreme Court bench lifted his stay order, he asked the Chennai Police to book a case against the two judges under the SC/ST (atrocities) Act. The top court threatened to haul him up for contempt for some of the statements that he made, but Justice Karnan apologised saying that his “mental balance” was severely affected.

He finally took charge at the Calcutta High Court, after a private meeting with then-Chief Justice of India TS Thakur.

2017: On January 23, 2017, Justice Karnan had published an open letter to the Prime Minister naming “an initial list” of 20 sitting and retired Supreme Court and High Court judges, accusing them of corruption. In it, Justice Karnan had suggested that they be investigated through interrogation by central agencies.

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