Madras HC Chief Justice's transfer: Looking for method in the madness

It is an irony that while the apex court has prescribed a minimum 2-year tenure for bureaucrats and police officers heading sensitive bodies, it is unable to ensure a minimum tenure for the Justices

Madras High Court
Madras High Court

Herald View

The Madras High Court has had three Chief Justices in the past one year. That partly explains why the transfer of Justice Sanjib Banerjee has invited such strong reaction from both the Bar and the Bench. Even as 237 lawyers at the Madras High Court wrote to the Chief Justice of India to review the decision and the High Court Bar Association adopted a similar resolution, a retired Madras High Court judge also made public his dissent. The shock was greater because though the Supreme Court collegium is said to have taken the decision in September, it has been made public and notified two months later.

Multiple reports have also claimed that Justice Banerjee was not informed of the reasons for his abrupt transfer barely 10 months after he assumed charge as CJ of the country’s fourth largest high court with a sanctioned strength of 75 judges and which handles around 35,000 cases every year. He has now been transferred to Meghalaya High Court, which handles fewer than one thousand cases a year and has a strength of four judges. Whispers of ‘punishment posting’ have naturally gathered steam. It is assumed that the collegium takes such decisions in the best interests of the institution, in public interest and for the sake of better administration of justice. But there have been far too many contentious transfers in recent years, which led to unsavoury speculation and undermined public confidence in the integrity and independence of the judiciary. Justice Banerjee could surely have been transferred to Meghalaya in January as Chief Justice and not to Madras.

Had there been adverse reports against him after serving as a judge for nearly a decade and a half, the collegium would not have deemed him worthy of elevation as Chief Justice in the first place. But while elevation of a High Court judge from a larger high court to a smaller High Court as CJ would have made sense, lateral transfer of a Chief Justice from a large High Court to a much smaller one makes much less sense. In a letter to the collegium, over 30 senior counsel have pointed out that it takes a new Chief Justice at least a year to understand the administration, composition and challenges of an institution apart from understanding the culture, language and local practices. It is thus an irony that while the apex court has prescribed a minimum two-year tenure for bureaucrats and police officers heading sensitive bodies, it is unable to ensure a minimum tenure for the Justices.

In their letter to the collegium, the senior counsel have pointed out that Justice Banerjee in Madras dictated most of his orders in open court and not in chambers. The practice ruled out second thoughts and extraneous interference to some extent. A legitimate question that arises is if Justice Banerjee paid the price for not reserving his orders and delivering more convenient judgments. In his own farewell note to his staff, Chief Justice Banerjee regretted his inability to free them fully from the feudal system under which they worked. Here are two significant pointers to what ail our judiciary. The present Chief Justice of India is credited with restoring the credibility of the collegium to a great extent. Since his own term is not long enough, he may not be able to right all the wrongs. But he and the collegium would render a great service by ensuring some method and transparency in the opaque process of transferring High Court judges.

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