Expression of views by candidate doesn’t disentitle him from constitutional office: SC collegium

The Supreme Court collegium on Thursday emphasised the importance of free speech, noting “expression of views by a candidate does not disentitle him to hold a constitutional office”, while reiterating its decision to appoint two advocates as judges in the Bombay High Court and Madras High Court.

The detailed response by the collegium, headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K.M. Joseph, on the government’s objection to the elevation of lawyers as judges of high courts assumes significance against the backdrop of friction between the judiciary and the Centre over the mechanism in the appointment of judges.

Moving away from the convention, the collegium published its resolution on the apex court website where it divulged details why the government objected to certain names for the appointment of judges to the high court. Usually, collegium decisions are uploaded on the top court’s website.

In connection with the elevation advocate Somasekhar Sundaresan as a judge of the Bombay High Court, the collegium said the government wanted it to reconsider his candidature since he expressed views on social media on matters pending before the courts.

Returning Sundaresan’s name, it said: “The manner in which the candidate has expressed his views does not justify the inference that he is a ‘highly biased opinionated person’ or that he has been ‘selectively critical on the social media on the important policies, initiatives and directions of the government.”

“All citizens have the right to free speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Expression of views by a candidate does not disentitle him to hold a constitutional office so long as the person proposed for judgeship is a person of competence, merit and integrity.”

The collegium said Sundaresan has specialised in commercial law and would be an asset to the Bombay High Court which has a large volume of cases of commercial and securities laws, among other branches. “The Department of Justice has adverted to paragraph 175 of the Second Judges Case [(1993) 4 SCC 441] to the effect that the candidate to be selected must possess high integrity, honesty, skill, high order of emotional stability, firmness, serenity, legal soundness, ability and endurance. The candidate fulfils these qualities,” said the collegium, advocating his appointment as a high court judge.

In the second case, the collegium reiterated the elevation of advocate R. John Sathyan as a judge of the Madras High Court. The collegium’s resolution said the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had pointed out that he had shared an article critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and another post regarding committing of suicide by medical aspirant who ended her life in 2017 since she was unable to clear NEET, portraying it as a killing by ‘political betrayal’ and a tag stating ‘shame of you India’ came to notice.

The collegium said these two posts “will not impinge on the suitability, character or integrity of Sathyan” and pointed out that all the consultee judges had a favourable opinion about suitability of the lawyer. “The Intelligence Bureau has reported that he enjoys a good personal and professional image and that nothing adverse has come to notice against his integrity. Sathyan belongs to the Christian community. The IB report notes that he does not have any overt political leanings,” said the collegium, adding that Sathyan is fit and suitable for being appointed as a judge of the Madras High Court.

According to the memorandum of procedure (MoP), in connection with appointment of judges, the government can only object once if it does not agree with the collegium’s recommendations, and it is bound by the collegium’s decision after the names are reiterated.

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