Debating the NJAC: Round-Up and (Tentative) Conclusions

Over the last two weeks, on this blog, we have had an extensive debate about the various aspects of the National Judicial Appointments Case, where the validity of the 99th Amendment and the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act have been challenged. Recall, once again, that the 99th Amendment and the NJAC Act seek to remove the old system of judicial appointments, whereby the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court (“the Collegium”) decided upon appointments to the Supreme Court, with (what was effectively) a nominally consultative role played by the Executive. Through a new Article 124A of the Constitution, they seek to bring into existence a National Judicial Commission, comprising of six members (the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, two “eminent persons”, and the Law Minister), the functioning of which is – per a new Article 124C – is to be regulated by law (which is the NJAC Act). Under a new Article 124B, the NJAC will recommend appointments to the higher judiciary. Articles 124A, B and C form the backbone of the 99th Amendment, and have been impugned as violating the basic structure by destroying the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers, and the rule of law. The Union has equally strenuously defended the 99th Amendment.

In a set of powerful essays, Vishwajith, Suhrith, Ritwika, Malavika and Faiza have responded to my arguments that the 99th Amendment should be struck down. I am almost convinced, but not quite. Let me briefly highlight some of the key issues that have emerged.

On Article 124A, which replaces the collegium with the NJAC, there is consensus on two issues: first, that judicial independence is part of the basic structure, and secondly, that the nine-judge Second Judges Case binds the present five-judge bench. The Union’s argument is that the Second Judges Case merely interpreted the text of the old Article 124 in a certain way – “consultation” to mean “concurrence”, which was the basis of the collegium. By the 99th Amendment, the Parliament has replaced that text, and with it, the Supreme Court’s interpretation. The petitioners, on the other hand, argue that in The Second Judges Case, the Court clearly held that it was judicial primacy – via the collegium – that was part of the basic structure. Which side of the issue you come down on, therefore, depends upon your reading of The Second Judges Case, and the cases before and after it, with respect to three questions:

(a) Is judicial independence affected by the nature or manner of judicial appointments?

(b) If yes, then did the Second Judges Case hold that judicial primacy in appointments is part of the basic structure, because it preserves judicial independence?

(c) If yes, then did the Second Judges Case also hold that judicial primacy in appointments is a necessary requirement for the protection of judicial independence?

In my submission, the answer to all three questions is yes, leaving the present Constitution Bench with no option but to strike down Article 124A. Let me stress once again that this is not a defence of the collegium. I am in complete agreement with Suhrith, that the Court ought to have referred the matter to an eleven-judge bench, to decide without being constrained by The Second Judges Case. But it didn’t. And I would submit that it ought not now to compound an error by overturning precedent, and going against the grain of stare decisis.

With respect to Article 124C, I argued that by delegating the framing of regulations governing the functioning of the NJAC to Parliament through its ordinary law-making process, the 99th Amendment has transformed constituent power into legislative power, and this is a violation of the separation of powers. Two arguments were made in response: first, that the separation of powers exists horizontally (i.e., you cannot take power away from one State wing and transfer it to another, as was being done in the case of tribunals (judiciary to executive)), and secondly, a history of the constitutional scheme indicates that parliamentary control over judicial appointments is consistent with the separation of powers.

With respect to the first argument, I would contend that the verticality of the separation of powers is a necessary consequence of its more familiar, horizontal understanding. As I argued in my essay, the constitutional scheme distributes power among the three state organs – the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary – while at the same time, it retains certain powers within the Constitution. Just as the powers of one of the three wings of State cannot be aggrandised by redistributing inter se, by the same logic, it cannot be aggrandised by taking from the Constitution and giving it to that wing. To put it in less jargon-y terms: until now, the procedure for judicial appointment was located within the Constitution. Any change could be made only through a constitutional amendment – i.e., by Parliament exercising its constituent power through a super-majority. A good example of this is the 99th Amendment itself. But what Article 124C effectively does it to exercise a one-time constituent power of amendment, in order to delegate all future changes to the parliament through its ordinary law-making process. Thus, it takes from the constitutional scheme and gives to the Parliament, thereby aggrandising the power of the Parliament at the relative expense of the judiciary and the executive. To take a concrete example – suppose that tomorrow, Parliament amends the NJAC Act and establishes a quorum of three members, or gives the Law Minister a permanent veto? I’m not necessarily arguing that this is unconstitutional – but I am arguing that it has to be done through an amendment, not through law.

The second point – that Parliamentary control over appointments is part of the constitutional scheme – is harder to answer, because if true, it undermines my entire argument. Admittedly, there is no rigid separation of powers under the Indian Constitution. We have a flexible scheme, which is accommodative of a little tinkering around the edges. If Parliamentary control is structurally consistent with the constitutional scheme, then clearly, the manner in which the 99th Amendment redistributes power cannot be held to violate the separation of powers. It merely redistributes power within permissible contours.

I would maintain, however, that the old Article 124 was very clear on the point. Appointments were to be made through a consultative process between the executive (President) and the judiciary. The 99th Amendment transforms that entirely, making the Parliament supreme, by giving it law-making powers in a way that can completely erase the judiciary’s role (e.g., under Article 124C, framing a law that gives the law minister a veto). My analogy with Articles 53 and 54 – imagining a hypothetical where the parliament amends the provisions for electing the President, abolishes the electoral college, and delegates the issue to parliamentary law – substantiates the contention. For these reasons, I think that my argument on the separation of powers holds, although I admit it is a very close question. I still think that the Supreme Court ought to strike down 124A on the basis of the binding ratio of The Second Judges Case, and Article 124C on the basis of the separation of powers, but I do not think that a contrary, well-reasoned judgment would leave much to complain about.

There have also been conflicting views on the issue of whether, if the Supreme Court were to strike down the 99th Amendment, the 99th Amendment would revive. One argument is that by failing to specifically refer the issue to a larger bench in The Property Owners Case, the question has impliedly been settled in favour of revival. As against this, it has been argued that the question requires adjudication, since the Property Owners Case – so far – has been silent it; and that in any event, the question of revival in the case of Article 31C, which merely allowed an immunity to Parliament (and is the subject of the Property Owners Case), is very different from the question of revival in this case, where an entire constitutional apparatus has been replaced.

Will the Court go that far, however? My own feeling is that the Supreme Court will not do something as (politically) bold and risky as striking down the 99th Amendment altogether. I suspect it will strike down the NJAC Act, while reading in guidelines into Article 124A on the lines suggested by Chintan, in his essay: maybe a veto power for the CJI, further specifications for the “eminent persons”, and/or the requirement of written reasons for rejecting a nominee. I personally think that this would amount to an illegitimate rewriting of a Constitutional amendment, but as the last twenty years have shown, the Courts’ power to issue guidelines is more or less untrammeled. Of course, I am speculating in the dark – the Court might actually strike down the Amendment, just as it may well uphold everything.

The struggle between the judiciary and the executive/legislature has marked much of India’s political history after over the last forty-five years. Whatever the Supreme Court decides now, it will have important ramifications in the years to come; and whatever it decides, I doubt whether we will have heard the last of it!

 

A thematic list of all the essays debating the NJAC case on this blog is as follows:

The Second Judges Case

1. Akhil’s essay, arguing that the Second Judges Case was wrongly decided, and that the collegium is unconstitutional

Article 124A

2. My essay arguing that Article 124A violates the basic structure because of the Second Judges Case (Parts One and Two)

3. Vishwajith’s response, arguing that Article 124A is constitutional, on a contrary reading of the Second Judges Case (Parts One and Two)

4. Suhrith’s response, arguing that 124A is constitutional, because judicial primacy is not part of the basic structure

5. Ritwika’s essay on the “eminent persons” to be appointed to the NJAC

Article 124C

6. My essay arguing that Article 124C amounts to impermissible delegation of constituent power, violates the separation of powers, and should be struck down.

7. Malavika and Vishwajith’s response, arguing in favour of Article 124C on the basis of separation of powers

8. Ritwika and Faiza’s response, arguing that parliamentary control over judicial appointments does not violate the basic structure (Parts One and Two)

Remedies

9. Chintan and Rahul, arguing (separately) about the remedy the Court might craft, and the possible implications.

Revival

10.  Sarangan’s essay, arguing that the collegium will revive if the SC strikes down the 99th Amendment

11. Vasujith’s response, arguing that the question of revival must be separately adjudicated

12. Sanjay Jain’s essay on the philosophy of revival

My thanks to all those who took their time out and contributed to the debate. Hopefully we can make this a regular thing for big cases!

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1 Comment

Filed under Basic structure, Judicial Independence

One response to “Debating the NJAC: Round-Up and (Tentative) Conclusions

  1. Pingback: The NJAC Judgment and its Discontents | Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy

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