Guest Post: The (Un)Constitutionality of the Uttar Pradesh Education Tribunal Bill, 2019

[This is a guest post by Tanishk Goyal and Rishabh Narain Singh.]


On 18th June, 2019, the Uttar Pradesh State Legislature passed the Uttar Pradesh Education Service Tribunal Bill, 2019 (‘The Bill’) which proposed to establish an Education Tribunal, to hear and adjudicate upon service disputes related to higher education. The bill soon became the subject of controversy due to a multitude of reasons which, inter-alia, also included the proposed establishment of the Tribunal at Lucknow which was not agreeable to the lawyers practicing at Allahabad as well as Oudh.  The lawyers of the Allahabad High Court Bar Association (AHCBA’) and the Oudh Bar Association (‘OBA’) essentially assailed the bill due to their opposition to the seat of the Tribunal. On August 16, 2019, a Division bench of Allahabad High Court took suo motto cognizance of the matter in  In Re: Dispute Relating to Place of Establishment of Adjudicatory Forum Like Specialized Tribunal etc. and passed an order asking the State to explain why the specialized education tribunal was proposed to be set up only at one place, Lucknow, ignoring the place of the “Jurisdictional High Court”. This order was challenged by the OBA before the Supreme Court which ultimately quashed the cognizance taken by the Division Bench of the Allahabad High Court.

While the Bill still awaits Presidential Assent required under Article 200 of the Constitution of India, it is pertinent to note that, notwithstanding the debate on the seat of the Tribunal, there still exist certain inherent unarticulated concerns regarding the Constitutional validity of the Bill. These concerns essentially include the lack of legislative competence of the State legislature to pass the bill, the bypassing of judicial review and power of superintendence under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution and the violation of the principles of independence of the Judiciary.

I. Legislative Competence

The State Legislature lacks competence under both Article 323-B and Entry 25 of List III to setup a Tribunal that bypasses or dilutes the writ jurisdiction of the High Court under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution. This has been illustrated forthwith.

Tribunals have a long-standing history in India. The 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act inserted Articles 323A and 323B which provide for establishment of Tribunals. The chief purpose of bringing in Tribunals, was to lessen the burden of the High Courts and to provide justice to the litigants in an expeditious and efficient manner. While Article 323-A is exclusively reserved for the Parliament which has the power to set up “Administrative Tribunals”, Article 323-B uses the word “appropriate legislature”, thus empowering both the Parliament and the State Legislature to set up tribunals on the matters mentioned in sub clause(2).

It is also acknowledged here that these Articles are only enabling provisions, and the Parliament or the State Legislature can also establish tribunals beyond them, for the administration of justice as long as they possess the legislative competence under the appropriate Entry in the Seventh Schedule. This has been reiterated by the Supreme Court, in multiple decisions. Illustratively, the Court, in the case of Union of India v. R Gandhi held that:

“80. The legislative competence of Parliament to provide for creation of courts and tribunals can be traced to Entries 77, 78, 79 and Entries 43, 44 read with Entry 95 of List I, Entry 11-A read with Entry 46 of List III of the Seventh Schedule. Referring to these articles, this Court in two cases, namely, Union of India v. Delhi High Court Bar Assn. [(2002) 4 SCC 275] and State of Karnataka v. Vishwabharathi House Building Coop. Society [(2003) 2 SCC 412] held that Articles 323-A and 323-B are enabling provisions which enable the setting up of tribunals contemplated therein; and that the said articles, however, cannot be interpreted to mean that they prohibited the legislature from establishing tribunals not covered by those articles, as long as there is legislative competence under the appropriate entry in the Seventh Schedule.” (emphasis supplied)

Moreover, the contention that Tribunals can be only be constituted with respect to matters mentioned in Articles 323-A and 323-B of the Constitution, was explicitly rejected by the Court in the same case, where it said that:

“83. […] It is [the petitioner’s] contention that the very fact that Articles 323-A and 323-B have been specifically enacted empowering the legislature concerned to make a law constituting tribunals in regard to the matters enumerated therein, demonstrated that tribunals cannot be constituted in respect of matters other than those mentioned in the said Articles 323-A and 323-B. The contention is not sound.

In light of this, while the words “education” and “service” find no mention in sub clause (2) of Article 323-B and there is no other matter mentioned therein which is analogous to education and service, the State may still be in a position to argue that it has exercised its powers under Item 25 of List III of the Constitution of India, which enumerates the following matters on which the State can make laws:-

“25. Education, including technical education, medical education and universities, subject to the provisions of Entries 63, 64, 65 and 66 of List I; vocational and technical training of labour.”

However, an eleven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in T.M.A Pai Foundation v. State Of Karnataka (‘T.M.A Pai’) limited the power of the State Legislature to set up educational tribunals for the adjudication on disputes relating to private educational institutions only. The observation of the Supreme Court is instructive, and deserves to be quoted in full:-

64. In the case of educational institutions, however, we are of the opinion that requiring a teacher or a member of the staff to go to a civil court for the purpose of seeking redress is not in the interest of general education. Disputes between the management and the staff of educational institutions must be decided speedily, and without the excessive incurring of costs. It would, therefore, be appropriate that an educational Tribunal be set up in each district in a State, to enable the aggrieved teacher to file an appeal, unless there already exists such an educational tribunal in a State — the object being that the teacher should not suffer through the substantial costs that arise because of the location of the tribunal; if the tribunals are limited in number, they can hold circuit/camp sittings in different districts to achieve this objective. ” (emphasis supplied).

The above ruling of the Court was against the backdrop of the law settled by a seven-judge bench in the case of L Chandra Kumar v. Union of India which held that judicial review under Articles 226/227 and Article 32 forms a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. More specifically, it was held that the jurisdictional powers of the tribunal constituted under Articles 323A and 323B are subject to the powers of the High Court adumbrated in Articles 226/227 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court struck down clause 2(d) of Article 323A and clause 3(d) of Article 323B on the grounds that they excluded the jurisdiction of the High Courts and the Supreme Court under Article 226/227 and 32 respectively.

This essentially means, that under no circumstances,can the State Legislature exclude the writ jurisdiction of the High Court by the establishment of a Tribunal. Since private educational institutions do not qualify as “State” within the meaning of Article 12, they are not amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Court. Therefore, the establishment of an education tribunal for the adjudication of disputes of private educational institutions, does not exclude the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution.

Unlike the case in T.M.A Pai, the Uttar Pradesh Bill does not contain the words “private schools and institutions” which essentially means that it is only meant for the Government Educational Institutions which qualify as ‘State’ within the meaning of Article 12, thereby making them amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts under 226/227 of the Constitution. Section 8 of the Bill nefariously attempts to bypass this writ jurisdiction of the High Court. To this effect, it reads as:-

“8.On and from the date from which any jurisdiction, powers and authority becomes exercisable under this Act by the Tribunal in relation to service matters of teachers and non teaching employees working in an educational institution, no court except the Supreme Court shall have or be entitled to exercise any jurisdiction, power or authority in relation to such service matters” (emphasis supplied).

This runs counter to the dictum of the apex Court in the case of L Chandra Kumar v. Union of India as mentioned above. It is pertinent to note here that the ruling in L Chandra Kumar also held Article 227 to be a part of the basic structure of the Constitution of India. This essentially means that the ruling is not limited only to the tribunals enacted under Article 323A and 323B but also extends to the tribunals which have been formed under Lists II and III and which come under the High Court’s power of superintendence by virtue of Article 227 of the Constitution, thus covering the U.P Education Tribunal in the present case.

More specifically, Section 8 of the U.P Bill bypasses judicial review of the decision of a statutory/quasi-judicial authority. In a recent judgement of the Supreme Court in M/S Embassy Property Developments Pvt Ltd v. State of Karnataka, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court categorically held that the High Court can entertain a writ petition under Article 226 against an order of NCLT (a statutory/quasi-judicial authority) under an IBC proceeding. The court clarified that the decisions of statutory or quasi-judicial authorities can be only be corrected by way of judicial review of the administrative action.

Even under ‘special circumstances’, Section 10 of the Bill only allows an aggrieved party to invoke the ‘revision’ powers of the High Court on the ground that the matter involves a ‘question of law’. To this effect, Section 10(1) reads as:

“10. Any person  or authority aggrieved. by an order made. by the Tribunal, may, within 90 days from the date of order, apply to the High Court for revision of such order on the ground that the case involves any question of law.”

This provision essentially restricts the writ jurisdiction of the High Court under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution to a mere revisional jurisdiction which can only be invoked under special circumstances. A combined reading of Sections 8 and 10 therefore, amply illustrate the State’s attempts to clip the wings of the High Courts and willingly flout the basic structure of the Constitution.

While the bill needs to be scrutinised for what it says as mentioned above, it  needs a closer scrutiny for what it does not say. For instance, the bill is completely silent on the issue of having any statutory appeal against the decision of the Education Tribunal. This essentially translates to a situation where a litigant may only have a recourse to the ‘revisional’ jurisdiction of the High Court against an order of the Education Tribunal and that too, under special circumstances. This silence of the Bill is especially concerning, inasmuch as even the legislations establishing Education Tribunals for private educational institutions provide for a statutory appeal against any order/direction/judgement of the Tribunal before the High Court. (For example, See, The Jharkhand Education Tribunal Act, 2005, §16).

It was perhaps due to the foregoing reasons that the Governor of Uttar Pradesh in exercise of his powers under Article 200 referred the bill to the President, as it aims to curtail the power of the High Court. Article 200 essentially puts the Governor under an obligation to protect the wide powers of the High Courts from being divested by the legislature. To this effect, the proviso of Article 200 reads as:-

“Provided further that the Governor shall not assent to, but shall reserve for the consideration of the President, any Bill which in the opinion of the Governor would, if it became law, so derogate from the powers of the High Court as to endanger the position which that Court is by this Constitution designed to fill.”(emphasis supplied).

Having apprised the reader of the legislative incompetence of the State to enact the said Bill, we now move on to argue how the Bill grossly violates the principles of Independence of the Judiciary.

II. Judicial Independence

Another glaring flaw with this bill is regarding the composition of the education tribunal, as technical members exceeded the number of judicial members. Illustratively, Section 3(2) of the Bill provides for:

[A] Chairperson, a Vice Chairperson (Judicial), a Vice Chairperson (Administrative) and such other Judicial and Administrative members not less than three in each category as may be determined by the State Government” (emphasis supplied)

Additionally, Section 3(3)(a) of the Bill lists out the qualifications required for the appointment as a chairperson. Essentially, it requires the appointee to either:

“(i) [have] been a Judge of a High Court; or

(ii) [have] for at least two years held the post of Vice Chairperson (Judicial); [or]

(iii) [have] been a member of the Indian Administrative Service and held the post of a Secretary to the Government of India  or any other post under the Central or State Government equivalent thereto, and [have] adequate experience in dispensation of justice.”

This provision may essentially create a situation where the Tribunal comprises three Judicial Members and four administrative members with the chairperson being an administrative member. Such a composition is not permissible under our constitutional scheme as it has the potential to put the judicial member(s) in minority, thus giving primacy to the executive.

Bearing in mind the principles of Judicial Independence, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Rojer Mathew v. South Indian Bank Ltd, while reiterating the need to secure the independence of judiciary, struck down the rules framed under the Finance Act, 2017 as they did not comply with directions issued in Union Of India v. R Gandhi. Borrowing from R Gandhi, a five judge bench, which reviewed the Constitutional validity of Parts I-B and I-C of The Companies Act, 1956 inserted by the Companies (2nd Amendment) Act, 2002, held that:-

“48. if Tribunals are established in substitution of Courts, they must also possess independence, security and capacity. Additionally, with transfer of jurisdiction from a traditional Court to a Tribunal, it would be imperative to include members of the judiciary as presiding officers/members of the Tribunal. Technical members could only be in addition to judicial members and that also only when specialised knowledge or know-how is required. Any inclusion of technical members in the absence of any discernible requirement of specialisation would amount to dilution and encroachment upon the independence of the judiciary.” (emphasis supplied)

It is pertinent to note here that, in Union of India v. R Gandhi, the court found out that certain provisions of Company (Second Amendment) Act, 2002 suffered from unconstitutional “defects.” In an attempt to cure such defects, the Court suggested certain corrections which, inter-alia, included the following suggestion:- “xiii. Two-member Benches of the Tribunal should always have a judicial member. Whenever any larger or special Benches are constituted, the number of technical members shall not exceed the judicial members.” (emphasis supplied).

The composition of the GST Appellate Tribunal was also declared unconstitutional by the Madras High Court in the case of Revenue Bar Association v. Union Of India on similar grounds. In this case, the High Court dealt with the constitutional validity of Sections 109 and 110 of Chapter XVIII of the Central Goods and Service Tax (CGST) Act, which said that the Tribunal should have one judicial member and two technical members, each from the Centre and State, a composition which was held to be impermissible under our constitutional scheme.

Thus, from a perusal of the above cases, it is sufficiently clear that Technical/Administrative members cannot override the number of Judicial Members in a Tribunal. It is also clear that the Chairperson of the Tribunal should necessarily be a judicial member in order to safeguard the judiciary from excessive executive interference.

Tribunals create a unique situation where the State, being the biggest litigant or stakeholder in our judicial system, itself becomes a part of the adjudicating body. This strikes at the very root of judicial independence which becomes prone to being caught in the crosshairs of the legislative sniper. While we cannot disregard the aid and assistance of technical/administrative members, who with the help of their expertise and specialised knowledge facilitate the justice delivery process, we have to be cautious that their presence is not translated to their dominance in the Justice delivery system.

Conclusion

In light of the growing need to unload the burden of the superior courts, tribunalisation has been increasing at a breakneck pace. These Tribunals unarguably are an essential part of the justice delivery system and they require complete autonomy and independence while effectively discharging their onerous duties of dispensing justice. However, it is trite to mention that Tribunals have not yet achieved full independence and  despite the Court’s exhaustive directions issued in R. Gandhi, they increasingly continue to  undermine the Constitution.

As far as the U.P Bill is concerned, the following corrections may be required to make the Bill constitutionally permissible

  • Section 3(2) should be amended to conclusively ensure that the number of administrative members do not exceed the number of judicial members.
  • Section 3(3)(a) should be amended to ensure that the Chairperson is a judicial member only.
  • Section 8 of the Bill should be amended to ensure that the writ jurisdiction of the Allahabad High Court under Articles 226/227 is not excluded.
  • Section 10 of the bill should provide a statutory appeal to the Allahabad High Court against any order/direction/judgement of the Tribunal.

However, until the time the directions of the Court in R Gandhi are not complied with; or a Single Nodal Agency under the aegis of the Ministry of Law and Justice to monitor the working of Tribunals as suggested by the Law Commission of India in its 272nd Report is not established, this responsibility to ‘cure’ the unconstitutional defects in Tribunals would have to remain with the Superior Courts of the country.

On the role of courts: and why the supreme court is playing the waiting game

On the Supreme Court’s last working day of 2019, it agreed to hear the constitutional challenge to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (“CAA”). With this, the court takes into its winter vacation the challenges to the CAA, the amendment of Article 370 and the internet shutdowns in Kashmir. Outside the cloistered halls of the court, the public debate over the legality and desirability of these measures has reached fever pitch. With both the legal and political processes of contestation in full swing, it is an appropriate time to examine how divorced the two truly are.

Our trust in courts as institutions of justice flows from a few key ideas: that courts are isolated from short term political pressures, they decide on the basis of settled legal principles irrespective of how politically sensitive a case is, and they are independent from the elected government of the day and thus serve as a check on government power. This piece critically examines these assumptions about courts. I argue that while courts do decide cases in accordance with legal principles, the actual outcomes of crucial constitutional cases balance the requirements of the law, deference to the government, and deference to public sentiment. Recognising that alongside normative legal principles, public sentiment and the government have a crucial role to play in constitutional adjudication re-emphasises the need for active political contestation and debate over these issues.

Isolation, independence and matters of principle

Courts are understood as being isolated from short term political pressures. Unlike elected legislators, who are accountable to their constituents and respond to their immediate needs, unelected judges with fixed tenures and salaries can deliberate in a ‘neutral’ manner and render decisions that may be politically unpopular but necessary for the long term preservation of human rights and democracy. Judges are not bound by party ideology or the need to garner the popular vote, so they can arrive at substantively ‘better’ decisions. For example, after a terrorist attack, public sentiment may overwhelmingly favour the torture and public execution of a captured terrorist. The government, acting on the demands of the electorate, may decide to torture and execute the terrorist (after all, good government responds to what the people want). The courts however, isolated from public sentiment and understanding the long-term benefits of upholding the rule of law and human rights, can ensure the captured terrorist receives a fair trial.

A second assumption underpinning the public trust in courts is that courts rely on precedent (stare decisis) and settled legal principles to decide cases. Therefore, once courts construe the phrase ‘equality’ or ‘liberty’ as having an expansive meaning, the same expansive interpretation will subsequently be applied irrespective of how politically significant or insignificant the facts of a case. This is often why progressive judgements are celebrated, because we presume that the reasoning of these judgements will bind future benches of the court and lower courts. The last, and perhaps most significant, assumption about courts is that they stand independent from the elected government. Coupled with their isolation from short-term political pressures and their commitment to decide cases on legal principles, this leads to the overarching argument that courts stand as a check against the abuse of government power.

A chequered track record

A close examination of the track record of courts during periods of regularised and flagrant human rights violations casts doubt on the argument that courts are effective checks on majoritarian government power. In India, the most famous example of the court’s failure to resist the use of government power is ADM Jabalpur v S S Shukla. The case, heard at the height of the emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her election was challenged in 1975, centred around whether individuals detained by the government (often political opponents of the Prime Minister) had a right to approach the courts for relief during the emergency. Despite several High Courts holding that detained persons had a right to approach the court even during an emergency, in ADM Jabalpur the Supreme Court held that no such right existed and left the detentions to the sole supervision of the government. The Indian Supreme Court is not alone in turning a blind eye to the exercise of government power against its citizens during times of national or political crisis. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry in Korematsu v United States – citing the overriding needs of national security and avoidance of espionage. In Liversidge v Anderson the House of Lords held that the Home Secretary did not have to objectively justify his detention order with reasons and the such matters were not justiciable in courts. These cases have since been overruled or denounced as ‘black marks’ on an otherwise unblemished record of judicial history, but they serve as powerful reminders that when governments exercised their power against citizens in the most extreme ways, courts have been found to be inadequate protectors.

Sabarimala – the Supreme Court’s problem child

A prime example of how far the Indian Supreme Court’s behaviour can stray from the core assumptions we associate with courts acting as politically insulated institutions dispensing justice according to legal principles is the court’s treatment of the Sabarimala dispute. To recap: in 2018 a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala temple as violating the constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination. The judgement led to a public backlash in Kerala (the state where the Sabarimala temple is situated). Those opposing the judgement took the law into their own hands and refused to permit the entry of women into the temple, often attacking women who tried to enter. A review petition was filed against the 2018 judgement, the significant irregularities of which have already been addressed on this blog (here) and do not need to be rehashed. It is sufficient to note that one judge (Khanwilkar J) refused to stand by the judgement he had signed less than a year ago in 2018 and in November 2019 the court decided that the 2018 judgement needed to be ‘reconsidered’ by a larger bench. To understand what happened next, it is important to note that by referring the dispute to a larger bench, the court did not stay the 2018 judgement but merely kept the review petition pending. The pendency of a review petition does not deprive a judgement from having the force of law. This means that at the time of writing this post, the 2018 judgement remains good law and a woman should be able to enter Sabarimala. When the Supreme Court was asked to direct the Kerala Government to uphold and enforce the judgement, the Chief Justice of India acknowledged that there was no stay on the 2018 judgement, but refused to direct the State Government to enforce the judgement – noting the matter was “very emotive” and the court wanted to avoid violence.

The treatment of Sabarimala is a testament to how the Indian Supreme Court consider both legal principles and public sentiment in deciding constitutional cases. The 2018 judgement was based precisely on the legal principles we associate with constitutional courts. However, unlike the court’s decisions decriminalising consensual gay sex or adultery, where the court’s decision faced widespread and organised public resistance, the court did a double take, refusing to enforce its judgement and stating that the judgement itself needed to be ‘reconsidered’. The ‘settled’ legal principles of equality laid down in 2018 (which we expect to bind future courts) succumbed to the changed political landscape of 2019. Changing public sentiment leading to the court ‘flip-flopping’ on outcomes is not new, and not always detrimental to the rights of citizens. For example, in 2013 the Indian Supreme Court refused to decriminalise consensual gay sex but five years later the court did decriminalise it. It is perfectly possible for future benches to disagree with past ones; however, the incremental nature of such change is essential to maintain the public trust that courts are insulated from the politics of the day. The casting in doubt of Sabarimala within a year, in the face of abject and consistent non-compliance with the judgement by the government and citizens, points to just how thin the court’s veneer of being insulated from public sentiment and deciding cases purely on legal principles is.

Plenty has been written on why the CAA is unconstitutional and should be struck down for violating Article 14 and its resultant jurisprudence (including here on this blog). However, the very idea that the court will apply the legal principles it has previously laid down is caveated by the court’s regular deviation from settled principles in the face of troubling ground realities or persistent public sentiment to the contrary.

Judicial independence 

The last assumption is that courts stand independent of the government and form the ultimate protectors of individual rights against state action. Historically, we have seen that this has not always been the case. As a matter of constitutional design, courts control neither the ‘sword nor the purse’. In other words, courts rely on the government to implement and abide by their decisions. The extent to which the government does so is a function of how much public legitimacy and authority the court wields at any given time. In a handful of jurisdictions, court have over centuries entrenched themselves to a point where non-compliance with their judgements is unthinkable and a government refusing to comply with a court judgement would risk being voted out of power by an electorate that deeply values the rule of law. For example, when the British Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to suspend parliament was found to be unconstitutional by the U.K. Supreme Court, the question was not whether the Prime Minister would comply with the decision, but rather whether he would apologise to the Queen and British public.

In most jurisdictions however, where courts have not had the time or opportunity (or have squandered both) to create a deep sense of institutional credibility and win the public trust, courts are far more vulnerable to government interference.  If a court were to repeatedly strike down government action, the government can register its discontent with the court in several ways. The most common (and visible) tactic is to delay/interfere with the process of judicial appointments. Right from Indira Gandhi’s appointment of A N Ray as Chief Justice (superseding the three senior most judges of the Supreme Court who had ruled against her government) to the current government’s delays in confirming judges, Indian courts have regularly been susceptible to government pressure over judicial appointments. The government may also refuse to provide funding and infrastructure for courts. At the extreme, the government can simply refuse to comply with or implement the judgements of the court. The Indian Home Minister’s recent suggestion that the non-implementation of Supreme Court judgements was an acceptable state of affairs runs dangerously close to an outright refusal to acknowledge the authority of the court. In such situations, courts must not only apply the law, but also balance the needs of the law with deference to the government to ensure the court’s continued survival as an institution.

Indian jurisprudence is replete with such deference. In 1975 when the Allahabad High Court found the then Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) guilty of corrupt practices and invalidated her electoral victory, the government passed a constitutional amendment designed specifically to nullify the invalidation. In the Supreme Court, the constitutional amendments were struck down, but the Prime Minister’s election victory was upheld, allowing Indira Gandhi to remain in power. In Maneka Gandhi v the Union the petitioner’s passport was impounded, and no reasons provided. She approached the court contending that her right to a fair trial and to put forth her defence had been taken away. In a sweeping judgement, the court significantly expanded the scope and rigour of scrutiny, holding that procedure by which liberties are infringed must be ‘fair, reasonable and just’. However, rather than invalidate the order impounding of the passport or the provisions of the Passport Act, the court took on record the Attorney General’s assurance that the government would ‘consider’ the court’s observations and left the matter to the government. Ironically, the last paragraph of Maneka Gandhi (widely touted as a high watermark of Indian human rights jurisprudence) reads:

“The Attorney General assured us that all the grounds urged before us by the petitioner and the grounds that may be urged before the authority will be properly considered by the authority and appropriate orders passed. In the result, I hold that the petitioner is not entitled to any of the fundamental rights enumerated-in Article 19 of the Constitution and that the Passport Act complies with the requirements of Art. 21 of the Constitution and is in accordance with the procedure established by law.”

The Chief Justice’s recent refusal to pass directions for the entry of women at Sabarimala stems in part from the fact that both the Kerala Government and Central Government have indicated their unwillingness to carry out such directions. An order directing the authorities to enforce the judgement would likely be ignored by both governments, triggering a constitutional crisis.

The present day

Having understood that while not entirely independent, the court is undoubtedly uniquely situated, let us examine the court’s recent decisions where the stakes for the government were particularly high. In its Aadhar judgement, the court upheld the government’s collection and use of bio-metric data as part of the Aadhar scheme. The court in 2018 also held the Aadhar Act was correctly certified by the Speaker as a money bill (meaning it was not subject to scrutiny by the Rajya Sabha). But a year later in Rodger Matthew v South Indian Bank the court held that the Aadhar judgement’s reasoning on the issue of money bill was “arguably liberal [in favour of the government]” and “not convincingly reasoned”. The question of how future courts should construe money bills has been referred to a larger bench but peel away the Supreme Court’s strategic antics and the decision in Rodger Matthews is a damming admission that the Aadhar Act was unconstitutional but still upheld by the court.

The Supreme Court’s treatment of the petitions challenging the internet shutdown and detentions in Kashmir and the amendment of Article 370 has been the clearest example of the court’s deference to the government of the day. On 16 September 2019 the court passed an order (analysed here) which didn’t require the government to disclose the legal source of the internet shutdown and left it to the unrestricted discretion of the government to make “endeavours” to restore “normal life”. On 16 December 2019 the internet shutdown in Kashmir entered its 134th day, the longest ever recorded in a democracy. At the time of writing this post, the court is yet to adjudicate on the constitutionality of the internet shut down and the hearings challenging the actual amendment of Article 370 have just taken off.

Recall that vulnerable courts are often called upon to balance the meaning of the law with ensuring a working relationship with the government. After 70 years of democratic constitutionalism, our courts are certainly robust enough to avoid obliteration at the hands of the government. They regularly strike down state and central government actions found to be violative of the Constitution. However, with cases such as Aadhar, Sabarimala, the CAA and Kashmir, where the political stakes for the government are exceptionally high, cracks begin to emerge in the court’s multi-faceted balancing act between the law, public sentiment and deference to the government. In ADM Jabalpur the court compromised its fidelity to the integrity of the law and allowed the government a free reign in return for its continued survival (the supersession of Justice Khanna and the regular transfer of ‘non-complaint’ High Court judges by the government is telling in this regard). Today’s court is neither willing to expressly compromise its intellectual fidelity to the law nor its necessary relationship with the government – and so it sits on the fence, hoping that nobody will notice. The court does not trust its institutional legitimacy is strong enough to rule against the government on politically sensitive matters and continue to maintain a working relationship with the government (the government is equally to blame for this lack of trust). While it also refuses to expressly abandon its fidelity to the integrity of the law (as it did in ADM Jabalpur) and provide express judicial acquiescence of the government’s actions, its refusal to act is fast achieving a similar result indirectly.

Conclusion

Recognising that the central assumptions held about courts as counter-majoritarian institutions are flawed is the first step towards understanding the actions of the Supreme Court recently. The court undoubtedly analyses and applies legal principles on a day to day basis. However, in deciding constitutional cases with high political stakes, courts also consider the impact the decision will have on the government (Aadhaar and Kashmir), the prevailing public sentiment of the day, and the impact on the ground (Sabarimala). Absent any enforcement powers, the court’s is as bold as it thinks the government and people will allow it to be.

In deciding the host of thorny issues on its plate in 2020, the Supreme Court is likely to consider the prevailing public sentiment, strive to maintain a working relationship with the government, and lay down some important law. While the court’s legal questions will be answered by a handful of lawyers in Courtroom 1, the question of how strictly the court will apply the law to fulfil its constitutional role as a meaningful check on government power will be answered by every other Indian. This calls for renewed scrutiny of the court’s actions that denude the legitimacy of its decision making process (some examples include the use of sealed covers, the (mis)use of the master of the roster role, a flawed appointment process and the regular overriding of High Courts). Such actions not only violate core legal norms, but also reduce the public trust in the institution, reducing its institutional authority to act as a check on government power. Understanding the limitations of courts also highlights the need to strengthen the accountability and contestation within other wings of government beginning with our electoral and parliamentary processes.

The NJAC Judgment and its Discontents

In a landmark judgment today, the Supreme Court struck down the 99th Constitutional Amendment for being ultra vires the basic structure of the Constitution. The 99th Amendment was intended to replace the “collegium” system, in which the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court had the final say on judicial appointments, with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (“NJAC”) consisting of the law minister, two “eminent persons”, and the three aforementioned judges. In striking down the NJAC, the Court also held that the collegium system of appointments had revived, and was operative. Justices Khehar, Lokur, Goel and Joseph wrote separate opinions for the majority, while Justice Chelameshwar dissented.

In an extended debate earlier on this blog, I had argued that Articles 124A and 124C, introduced by the Amendment, ought to be struck down. I, therefore, agree with the conclusion of the majority. However, I would also submit – with respect – that the four majority opinions are flawed in some serious respects, and lay down propositions of law which are not adequately defended or justified. In this essay, I will give a brief account of the majority holdings, and their discontents.

Background

Let us briefly go over the background to this case. Under the old Article 124, the President was to appoint judges in “consultation” with the Chief Justice, and other such judges that he might see fit to consult. In The Second Judges Case, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the word “consultation” was to be read to mean “concurrence”, and as a result, established the collegium system, which upgraded the judiciary’s role from a formally consultative one, to one in which the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court had the last word (“primacy”) in appointments. The 99th Amendment was Parliament’s attempt to overcome the holding of the Second Judges Case by replacing Article 124 with a new set of constitutional provisions, which established the NJAC. Article 124A detailed the composition of the NJAC (see above). Article 124C delegated the details of the selection process to parliamentary legislation, in pursuance of which the legislature framed the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act. Both the 99th Amendment and the Act were ultimately challenged before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.

Issues

As I had argued in my summary of the NJAC debate, the Constitution Bench would be required to answer the following questions:

124A: In light of the fact that the Second Judges Case is binding upon the present bench,

(a) Did The Second Judges Case hold that judicial independence is 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?

124C: In light of the fact that under the Constitutional scheme, appointment of judges is a constituent power contained in the Constitution, is it consistent with the separation of powers to move it from the Constitution to the domain of parliamentary legislation? Can the power of the parliament be relatively aggrandised at the expense of the executive and judiciary?

None of the judgments (majority or minority) dealt with Article 124C and the separation of powers. On Article 124A, the four majority opinions, with varying degrees of emphasis and analysis, answered “yes” to each of the three questions.

Referral and Merits

Another preliminary remark, for the sake of clarity. During the course of arguments, the Union requested the bench to refer the matter to an eleven judge bench, in order to reconsider the correctness of The Second Judges Case (in my view, this would have been the correct thing to do). The Court, while declining immediate referral, indicated that it would fully deal with the question while handing down its final judgment. Consequently, the majority opinions of Justices Khehar, Lokur and Goel are divided into two parts: the rejection of the referral, and the finding of unconstitutionality (there is also a third part dealing with the question of whether Justice Khehar ought to have recused himself, but we can ignore that for now). This is somewhat unfortunate, because in the judgments, the considerations that weighed with the Court in declining referral tend to become blurred with the arguments on unconstitutionality, leading to a significant amount of confusion.

Let me explain. In rejecting referral, the majority is, in effect, stating that there are no good reasons to review The Second Judges Case. In doing so, the majority attempts to show that The Second Judges case was correctly decided insofar as, the collegium is consistent with the scheme of the Constitution. Now, whatever you think about this conclusion, it doesn’t even come close to answering the question of the 99th Amendment’s constitutionality. This is because the answer to that question depends upon whether the collegium arose only out of the Court’s textual interpretation of the word “consultation” (in which case, the parliament is entitled to amend Article 124, get rid of “consultation”, and simply remove the basis of The Second Judges Case), or whether the Court found it to be part of the basic structure (in which case, obviously, Parliament couldn’t amend it away). This was substantially in issue between the parties, and the judgments of Justices Lokur and Goel record it (while failing to substantially address the dispute).

In other words, the constitutionality of the collegium does not imply the unconstitutionality of the 99th Amendment. Unfortunately, however, the majority opinions, at various points, seem to be taking the latter as the natural consequence of the former. This, as I will attempt to show, damages the overall structure of the holding.

Justice Khehar’s Majority Opinion

Justice Khehar’s leading opinion (clocking in at 440 pages) provides, broadly, five reasons why the Second Judges Case was correctly decided. First, he argues that judicial primacy in appointments was repeatedly accepted by the Court since the case of Shamsher Singh. The First Judges Case, which held that the veto lay with the Executive, and which was overruled by The Second Judges Case, was thus a lone aberration in a continuous line of precedent (paragraph 60, referral opinion). Secondly, he argues that the collegium does not violate the constitutional scheme by effacing the participation of the Executive, since the President (acting on the aid and advice of the council of ministers) can still object to recommended names, provide his reasons, and so on: only the last word, in case of a stalemate, is with the collegium (paragraph 68, referral opinion). Thirdly, in the Constituent Assembly Debates, judicial appointments were specifically discussed in the context of judicial independence, making it clear that the constitutional scheme regards appointments as an integral part of judicial independence (paragraph 76). Fourthly, in the Constituent Assembly Debates, while the word “consultation” was being discussed, Dr. Ambedkar clearly stated that it was intended to “curtail the will of the Executive” (paragraph 78). Consequently, if the idea was to “shield” the appointments process from the executive, the Second Judges Case was correct in giving “consultation” a meaning that going beyond its dictionary equivalent (paragraph 79). At the same time, Dr Ambedkar was hesitant about giving a complete veto to one individual – the Chief Justice. The Collegium achieves the desired balance between the two positions, by placing primacy in the hands of a plurality of judges. And fifthly, consistent practice since Independence allowed the Chief Justice the final say in judicial appointments (paragraph 86).

While I have no quarrel with the proposition that judicial appointments are part of judicial independence, I find Justice Khehar’s fourth point particularly troubling. Justice Khehar moves glibly between “curtail the will of the Executive” and “shield the appointments process from the Executive”. The two, however, are not equivalent. As Justice Chelameshwar argues in dissent, the history of the Constituent Assembly Debates suggests that what the framers were worried about was preventing Executive dominance in the appointments process. This appears a more persuasive reading of the “curtailing the will of the Executive”, one that does not necessitate judicial primacy as a corollary.

Be that as it may, it is at this stage that Justice Khehar makes his major move. In paragraph 149 of his merits opinion, he says:

“... the word consultation… have to be read as assigning primacy to the opinion expressed by the Chief Justice of India (based on a decision, arrived at by a collegium of Judges), as has been concluded in the “Reference Order”. In the Second and Third Judges cases, the above provisions were interpreted by this Court, as they existed in their original format, i.e., in the manner in which the provisions were adopted by the Constituent Assembly, on 26.11.1949 (-which took effect on 26.01.1950). Thus viewed, we reiterate, that in the matter of appointment of Judges to the higher judiciary, and also, in the matter of transfer of Chief Justices and Judges from one High Court to any other High Court, under Articles 124, 217 and 222, primacy conferred on the Chief Justice of India and his collegium of Judges, is liable to be accepted as an integral constituent of the above provisions (as originally enacted). Therefore, when a question with reference to the selection and appointment (as also, transfer) of Judges to the higher judiciary is raised, alleging that the “independence of the judiciary” as a “basic feature/structure” of the Constitution has been violated, it would have to be ascertained whether the primacy of the judiciary exercised through the Chief Justice of India (based on a collective wisdom of a collegium of Judges), had been breached…

In one word – the word “therefore” – Justice Khehar simply assumes away the core controversy! In the first part of the paragraph, he correctly notes that the Second and Third Judges Cases held that the word “consultation” meant primacy of the Chief Justice’s opinion. But if that was all that those cases said, then surely it is open to the Parliament to amend the Constitution, remove the word “consultation”, and take away the basis of those judgments – which is what it did. It must additionally and independently be shown that the Second Judges Case held that judicial primacy was part of the basic structure. As Vishwajith and Suhrith have argued on this blog, there is enough evidence in The Second Judges Case to militate against this conclusion (I have argued to the contrary). In either event, Justice Khehar’s assumption that everything after the “therefore” flows from everything before it, is misplaced: and this is the fulcrum of his decision.

After holding that judicial primacy in appointments is part of the basic structure, the rest follows more or less automatically. Judicial primacy in the NJAC is lost by the veto accorded to the “eminent members”; consequently, Article 124A and the Act must be held unconstitutional (paragraph 239). Justice Khehar also holds that the term “eminent persons” is unconscionably vague, and strikes that down as well (paragraph 182). Incidentally, he also states – while striking down the NJAC Act – that ordinary law can be challenged on the grounds of the basic structure (paragraph 220).

The Other Majority Opinions

The opinions of Justices Lokur, Joseph and Goel largely follow this structure, with a few variations. Justice Lokur points out additionally, for instance, that the NJAC not only diminishes the role of the CJI, but also that of the President, by converting his role from participatory to that of rubber-stamping the NJAC’s recommendations (paragraph 486), and that the presence of the Law Minister may skew the process (paragraph 516). Justices Joseph (page 899) and Goel (paragraph 18) hold – in clearer terms than Justice Khehar – that The Second Judges Case held that judicial primacy is part of the basic structure – but like him, they provide no analysis to buttress key claim. The amount of time all judges spend on showing that judicial primacy has been a long accepted constitutional convention makes me feel, once again, that mixing up the questions of referral and merits has led to a deeply confused judgment. Even if judicial primacy in appointments was a long-established constitutional convention, Parliament is entitled to change that through an Amendment. To invalidate the Amendment, you must show that judicial primacy is part of the basic structure. That claim is asserted. It is not demonstrated, either through through the text and structure of the Constitution, or through a close reading of the Second Judges Case.

Unfortunately, in what is otherwise a powerful dissent, Justice Chelameshwar also seems to miss this point: he too does not analyse the Second Judges Case for its holding. This is, of course, as important for him as it is for the majority – because if The Second Judges Case did hold that judicial primacy was part of the basic structure, Justice Chelameshwar, as part of a five-judge bench, would be bound by it.

Conclusion

What then are the key holdings of the majority? I would summarise them as follows:

(1) Judicial appointments, being an integral facet of judicial independence, are part of the basic structure.

(2) Judicial primacy in judicial appointments (with executive participation) is also part of the basic structure.

(3) The collegium allows for Executive participation while maintaining judicial primacy through the Collegium.

(4) The NJAC violates the basic structure by doing away with judicial primacy through its veto provisions.

What does this mean for the future? Parliament can, if it wants, bring in a new NJAC. But, in accordance with this judgment, judges will have to have the last word as part of that Commission – perhaps through an express veto power.

For the reasons I have provided above, I believe that the central claim of the majority, upon which all else turns, is unsubstantiated; and going forward, it constricts possibilities for a new commission by requiring judicial primacy in appointments. Perhaps this is what the constitutional scheme requires, but if so, it needed a strong defence. The majority has failed to provide that.

Many may feel that the Judiciary – and constitutional democracy in India – has dodged a bullet, and nipped the spectre of fascism in the bud. There might be some truth to that claim. But for those who feel that the collegium has been built upon foundations of naked power, and maintained through rhetoric, smoke and mirrors, this judgment will offer cold comfort. There might be some truth to that as well.

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!

Debating the NJAC: The Philosophy of Revival (Guest Post)

(In the final substantive essay of our two-week long debate on the NJAC, Professor Sanjay Jain examines the issue of revival from a jurisprudential perspective.

A round-up post will follow tomorrow)

The question as to whether the doctrine of revival can be applied to deal with unconstitutional constitutional amendments is still res-integra. This question does not only involve the relationship between legislature and judiciary, but it also has a bearing on the doctrine of separation of powers. In terms of Hartian jurisprudence, this debate can be characterized as involving the clash between rule of adjudication and rule of change.

Can the judiciary, by resorting to the rule of adjudication, unilaterally effect a change in the law, in the absence of participation from legislature via the rule of change? In my submission, the position in India is extremely inconsistent. Let me illustrate. In Minerva mills, Supreme Court declared the 42nd amendment of the Constitution, that extended immunity to laws promoting all directive principles against the challenge of violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by articles 13,14, 19 and 21 to be unconstitutional and it confined the scope of the immunity to the promotion of articles 39 (b) & (c).

What is the reality now? Look at the text of the constitution. It shows that legislature has not taken cognizance of this decision and that the language of article 31C is the same as it was after the 42nd amendment and prior to the Minerva mills judgment. In other words, the legislature has not translated the law laid down in Minerva in article 31C. Nevertheless, it is argued in some quarters that, with the decision of Minerva, amended article 31C was voided and pre-amended article 31 C got revived. But this is far from clear. The Court has not conclusively dealt with the doctrine of revival. Besides, the impact of the amendment in the Constitution made by the parliament, on the pre-amended text is also to be examined. Is it possible to argue that by resorting to rule of adjudication, court both invalidated the amendment and revived the earlier text? Would it not amount to arrogation of legislative power by the court unto itself? One possible answer to these questions may be that, the court has not revived the pre-amended text, rather it has merely adhered to the interpretation of Article 31C placed on it by 13 Judge Bench of Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharthi case. This argument can be defended on the rationale that the width of the powers of parliament is not absolute and is subject to constitutional limitations including that of basic structure and hence any exercise of power exceeding this limitation is non-est and would not have any impact on the previous interpretation of the court. Going by this logic, since the exercise of power in amending article 31C by way of the 42nd amendment was infructuous, there is no question of any revival and the old law (i.e. pre-amendment law) would govern the field.

Let us analyze whether the same logic would govern the case of the 99th amendment of the Constitution and NJAC Act.

In order to deal with this issue, it has to be first ascertained whether the analogy between article 31C and articles 124A, B, and C of the 99th Amendment, and the NJAC Act, is appropriate. It is possible to argue that the analogy is misplaced because in a Hohfeldian sense, article 31C is merely an immunity-conferring provision. As a consequence of this provision, the parliament and the state legislatures have only acquired immunity for some of their actions against a challenge based on certain fundamental rights; whereas after the 99th amendment, Article 124A, B and C along with NJAC act has resulted in the creation of a set of complex and radically different power conferring rules. It has not only nullified the collegium system, which was read into article 124 by way of interpretation in Judges 2 and 3 cases by the Supreme Court, but it has also introduced an entirely new machinery to appoint new judges. Thus, upon a bare perusal of these provisions, it is evident that Articles 124A, B, C and NJAC Act are a set of power conferring rules and have made qualitative changes in the constitutional process of appointment of judges. Indeed these changes are both procedural and substantive. More importantly, the NJAC act by introducing a national Judicial Appointments Commission, has not only discarded the collegium system all together, but through this enactment, the parliament has also seriously eroded the judicial domination in the process of appointment of judges by doing away with the element of judicial primacy in case of difference of opinion between the members of the newly created NJAC. In such a scenario, it would be stretching the imagination to imply that upon voiding of 99th amendment and NJAC Act, the pre-amendment law would revive. As a matter of fact, pre amendment law died with the parliamentary enactment of 99th amendment and NJAC act. Although the court has the power by way of judicial review to invalidate any constitutional amendments and legislations alike, from where would it derive the power to fill the vacuum created by the void as a result of its own decision?

However, it is an altogether different ball game when it comes to Article 31C. Article 31C did not create any new machinery, nor did it provide any additional powers to the parliament or state legislatures. It merely made the exercise of legislative power for promotion of certain directive principles immune from the challenge of certain fundamental rights. As a result, if Article 31C is struck down, it would only result in doing away with the immunity provided to the parliament and state legislatures against the challenge of certain fundamental rights in respect of exercise of legislative power by them to promote certain directive principles. Thus, it would neither discount the powers of the legislature nor, would it do away with any machinery. This is in sharp contrast with the voiding of Articles 124A, B, C and NJAC act which would not only result in doing away with the existing machinery but, would also take away the legislative powers of the parliament. On the other hand, even in the absence of Article 31C, a mere immunity, parliament and state legislatures would still be able to promote directive principles by making laws in the light of explicit mandate of Article 37 of the Constitution of India; whereas, it would become impossible for the state to make appointment of judges in absence of any machinery as the existing machinery would have been voided by the court and machinery prior to the present amendment, has already been done away with by the amending body and parliament, by way of amendment and NJAC act. This would be a case of constitutional vacuum vis-à-vis appointment of judges.

However, it is equally possible to argue against the so called constitutional vacuum. It is too banal a proposition to dispute the law making authority of the Supreme Court. In numerous cases, including the Vishakha judgment, Supreme Court has evolved guidelines as ad-hoc mechanisms to fill in the legislative void and the present scenario is not any different from the earlier cases. As a custodian of ‘constituent power’ and guardian of ‘basic structure’ of the constitution, it is plausible for the Supreme Court not only to void ‘unconstitutional constitutional amendments’ but also to put in place ad-hoc norms to fill the legislative vacuum resulting from the invalidation of the amendments.

To sum up, it is possible to argue on both sides of the debate, however it would be appropriate if judiciary and legislature collaborate in the deployment of rule of adjudication and rule of change respectively. It would lead to stability if the Supreme Court takes a call on doctrine of revival and parliament clarifies its position on article 31C by making appropriate amendments. Overuse of both, implication and the device of reasoning by analogy, would adversely affect the stability of the legal system and also create room for unwarranted speculations and conjectures. However, till the judiciary and parliament act, the anxiety continues and as observers we have to merely keep on guessing.

Debating the NJAC: Framing a Remedy (Guest Post)

(What is the Supreme Court finds that the 99th Amendment and the National Judicial Appointments Commission, in their present form, are constitutionally unsatisfactory, but also does not wish to strike them down? In the first part of this guest post, Chintan Chandrachud explores what the Court might do to bring the 99th Amendment in line with the Constitution. In the second part, Rahul Bajaj discusses the interaction between Court guidelines and Article 124C of the 99th Amendment.)

After thirty-one days of argument, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court has reserved judgment in amongst the most significant constitutional cases before the Court in recent years. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Second Judges Case in 1993, appointments to the Court have been made through what has come to be known as the ‘collegium’ system – in which the three senior most judges of the Court play a decisive role in the appointments process. The collegium system suffered increasing criticism, and Parliament attempted to replace it with an appointments process led by a ‘National Judicial Appointments Commission’ (NJAC) through a constitutional amendment and a statute that gives effect to the amendment. The amendment provides that the NJAC will consist of six people – the Chief Justice of India, the two senior most judges of the Supreme Court, the Law Minister, and two ‘eminent persons’. These eminent persons are to be nominated for three-year terms by a committee consisting of the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and are not eligible for renomination. The Supreme Court has been called upon to decide to constitutionality of the amendment and the statute.

This post will not consider the constitutionality or the merits of the collegium system and the NJAC. Although that is a most significant matter, it has been considered elsewhere (see, for example, here and here on this blog). It will explore a different, less studied, aspect of the case – the remedies available to the Supreme Court. As with the NJAC case, on most occasions on which law is challenged on the basis that it is unconstitutional, the challenge is conceived in terms of a binary – whether to strike down or not to strike down the law. The matrix of remedies available to the court is far more complex than this. In fact, although I have not come across any empirical data on this issue in India (see evidence from the UK here), the most common response to a finding of unconstitutionality is not to strike down the unconstitutional law, but to interpret it in a way that is consistent with constitutional requirements.

Therefore, it is highly problematic to take the premise that: (i) the court finds the constitutional amendment unconstitutional, to mean that (ii) the court will strike down the amendment. Instead, the Supreme Court has several intermediate options falling short of the strike down power before it. In this post, I consider three such options – although this should not be taken to mean that these options are mutually exclusive, or, for that matter, collectively exhaustive. These interpretive possibilities can be divided based on whether they address the composition of the NJAC or the functioning of the NJAC, and it is in this sequence that they will be considered.

1.Composition of the NJAC

Defining ‘eminent persons’ more narrowly

Amongst the arguments that the petitioners have made is that the constitutional amendment makes no attempt to define who the two eminent persons on the NJAC will be. This, it is argued, can give rise to two sets of problems. The first is a ‘malice’ based argument – that the executive could seek to nominate people with favorable political leanings. The second is more of a ‘recklessness’ based argument – that the executive could seek to nominate people who clearly lack the credentials to judge the performance of candidates. The Supreme Court could seek to eschew these concerns by specifying a set of criteria – or qualifications – that eminent persons would need to hold. Conversely, the Court could prescribe a set of disqualifications – for instance, that those who are charged with serious criminal offences will not be considered ‘eminent’.

Modifying the ‘eminent persons’ appointments process

 The constitutional amendment provides that the eminent persons on NJAC are to be appointed by a Committee consisting of the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. The argument here is that the politicians could combine to nominate a person who, in the opinion of the Chief Justice, lacks the credentials to be part of the NJAC. One way in which the Supreme Court may seek to avoid this situation is by interpreting the provisions to the effect that the Chief Justice has a veto power in the appointment of eminent persons. This would mean that the Chief Justice would always need to be in the majority, and a 2-1 decision, with a dissenting note from the Chief Justice, would not result in an appointment.

2. Functioning of the NJAC

An exclusive veto power for the judges

 Neither the constitutional amendment nor the statute giving effect to the amendment make it clear how the six-member NJAC is expected to take its decisions. The ideal scenario, presumably, is for decisions to be made by consensus. But where consensus is not possible, the alternative is likely to be a majority decision procedure. The statute specifies that no person shall be recommended for appointment to the Supreme Court if any two members disagree with the appointment. The argument against this requirement is that both sides – the judges and the non-judges – have a veto power over appointments. Arguably, the Law Minister together with one or more of the eminent persons could exercise their veto against independent-minded candidates. In order to grant the judges a degree of primacy in the process, the Supreme Court could read down this provision as applying only to the judges. This would, in other words, mean that assuming that all six members of the NJAC participate and vote, a successful appointment would require the concurrence of at least two of the three judges on the Commission.

There are many reasons for which the middle road – constitutional rights-compliant interpretation – seems intuitively appealing. It would probably enable all sides to claim victory. The government could claim that its amendment secured the Court’s stamp of approval, the petitioners could claim that they succeeded in having important safeguards infused into the appointments process, and the Court could send the message that it has effectively protected constitutional rights without thwarting the democratic will. A legislative sequel or pushback from Parliament would be much less likely in the event of an interpretive solution than if the constitutional amendment were struck down.

Nevertheless, the Court should be conscious of the risks associated with radically modifying the effect of the constitutional amendment. A fairly recent attempt at modifying the effect of a law (in which the provisions for appointment of Information Commissioners under the Right to Information Act 2005 were recast) came under severe criticism, following which the Supreme Court stepped back from its judgment in a review petition (for analysis, see here). Most importantly, some of the interpretive possibilities articulated here may produce an appointments process that closely resembles the existing collegium system. Thus, the NJAC could become the collegium in disguise – in which case, the Supreme Court would have successfully struck down the amendment without being transparent about doing so.

(Chintan Chandrachud is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge)

(The second part is by Rahul Bajaj)

 

It is submitted that the Supreme Court can address all the arguments against the 99th Amendment in a cogent manner without striking down the entire framework as unconstitutional and thereby avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let us examine how it can assuage the unease of those who question the constitutionality of the new dispensation.

First, with respect to the first argument, the Court can read into Article 124A a specific set of guidelines in accordance with which the eminence of persons to be appointed to the NJAC can be judged. More specifically, by delineating a set of factors which would be indicative of the persons’ vast knowledge of the law, impeachable integrity, lack of political affiliations and sustained and enduring commitment to public service and justice, the Court can effectively put to rest the fear that the appointment process would be dictated by extraneous political considerations, ulterior motives or the whims and fancies of the 3-member committee.

Similarly, with respect to the second argument, there are at least 2 conceivable solutions that the Court can adopt to bring the exercise of veto power in line with the values of the Constitution. First, it can set out the parameters in accordance with which the veto power can be exercised, such as the need for those exercising that power to put forth cogent evidence that can bring into question the integrity and competence of the potential appointee in support of their stance. Second, in order to preserve judicial primacy, the court can give the CJI, as the chairman of the NJAC, the power to overrule the veto in exceptional cases by putting forth cogent and compelling reasons for the same.

Finally, it is submitted that if the working of the NJAC is altered in the ways mentioned above, the argument that it undermines the independence of the judiciary would not pass muster for two reasons. First, as the first two Judges’ Cases unequivocally indicate, the focus of the judiciary has always been on highlighting the centrality of the role of consultation in the appointment process. Not only would the new framework institutionalize that desire in a far more well-structured and cohesive manner than has ever been done before, but the inbuilt checks in the new regime would enhance, as opposed to undermining, the independence of the judiciary. Second, the alterations that I have suggested would help create a robust bulwark against the arbitrary use of power which is the only way in which the avowed objective of judicial independence can be achieved.

Possible Constitutional Impediments to the Implementation of the Proposed Solution

In order to implement this solution, the judiciary would have to structure its scope and contours in such a way as to bring it in line with Article 124C of the Constitution. Article 124C reads as follows: “Parliament may, by law, regulate the procedure for the appointment of Chief Justice of India and other Judges of the Supreme Court and Chief Justices and other Judges of High Courts and empower the Commission to lay down by regulations the procedure for the discharge of its functions, the manner of selection of persons for appointment and such other matters as may be considered necessary by it.” As Article 124C expressly authorizes Parliament and Parliament alone to delegate to the NJAC the power to determine the procedures and parameters governing its functioning, the argument goes, the issuance of judicial guidelines on these issues would not only run counter to the express mandate of Article 124C, but would leave Parliament with no meaningful power to structure the working of the NJAC. I would submit that such an argument would not hold water for at least 2 reasons. First, while it is true that Article 124C authorizes Parliament to structure the working of the NJAC in exercise of which Parliament enacted the NJAC Act, the issuance of the guidelines that I propose would be nothing more than an interim measure aimed at filling the vacuum that Parliament has created by failing to put in place any objective parameters to govern either the appointment of eminent persons or the exercise of veto power. Put differently, these guidelines would be issued by the judiciary in furtherance of its bounden duty to construe any legislative action harmoniously with the Constitution and would not, in any way, deprive the Parliament of the power expressly granted to it under Article 124C. Ergo, Parliament would be free to incorporate, at any time of its choosing, the guidelines pertaining to the determination of eminent persons issued by the judiciary into Article 124A and the guidelines with respect to the exercise of veto power into the NJAC Act. It would also be free to modify those guidelines or put in place other safeguards in order to attain the fundamental objective of making the process of selection of eminent persons and the exercise of veto power less arbitrary and unfair. The power of the Supreme Court to issue guidelines in the existence of a legislative vacuum despite express constitutional provisions authorizing the Parliament alone to frame laws on the issues in question is best epitomized by its decision in the celebrated case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan where the Court issued a set of concrete guidelines for the protection of working women from sexual harassment at the workplace. Even though Article 51(c), Article 253 and entry 14 of the Union List in the 7th Schedule exclusively empower Parliament to frame laws to give effect to India’s commitments under international treaties, the Court decided to give effect to those commitments through the issuance of its guidelines to fill the void created by Parliament. Second, Article 141 and 144 impose a mandatory obligation on all authorities, civil or judicial, to follow the directions issued by the Supreme Court. Therefore, I would submit that the NJAC would be bound by the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court until Parliament makes express provisions to regulate the election of eminent persons or the exercise of veto power. If the 99th amendment or the NJAC Act had contained express provisions to address these two issues in a manner inconsistent with the Constitution and the judiciary had then issued guidelines to bring those provisions in line with the Constitution, the argument that such a step by the judiciary amounts to rewriting express statutory or Constitutional provisions may have passed muster, but since the two acts are completely silent about the parameters governing the exercise of veto power or the selection of eminent persons, the judiciary would be merely discharging its constitutional obligation in construing the new regime in a manner consistent with the Constitution. This would be a mere exercise of judicial pragmatism or, at most, a form of judicial activism actuated by the twin goals of preventing a constitutional crisis and ensuring that the process of judicial appointments does not suffer from the vice of arbitrariness.

In sum, it is a widely accepted proposition that the collegium system entirely failed to achieve the objectives that it was set up for because of lack of transparency, absence of valid parameters for the appointment of members of the collegium as well as absence of objective criteria for the appointment of judges. This being the case, it would be in the fitness of things for the judiciary to imbue the consultative and transparent framework that the legislature, in its collective wisdom, has sought to institutionalize for the appointment of judges with the values that would bring it in line with the Indian Constitution.

(Rahul Bajaj is an intern at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

Debating the NJAC – Article 124C, Excessive Delegation, and the Separation of Powers: A Response – III (Guest Post)

(Rounding off our debate about Article 124C of the Constitution, in this second part of their two-part essay, Ritwika Sharma and Faiza Rahman defend its constitutionality.)

In the first part of our defence of Article 124C, we argued that the said provision is neither violative of the principle of separation of powers nor vests a process which was hitherto enumerated under the Constitution within the contours of a law enacted by Parliament. In the second part of our defence, we argue that Article 124C cannot be challenged for suffering from the vice of excessive delegation insofar it delegates the power to frame regulations on the NJAC. The petitioners had, on occasions more than one, challenged Section 12 of the NJAC Act for conferring the NJAC with the power to frame regulations on a wide range of aspects pertaining to the functioning of the NJAC. An extensive discussion on the contours of delegated legislation has already taken place on this blog. Our defence of Article 124C, as well as the NJAC Act, is premised on certain specific aspects, as following:

First, the NJAC does not have unguided power to frame regulations under the scheme of the NJAC Act. It was specifically averred by the petitioners that the NJAC Act empowers the NJAC to formulate regulations in respect of criteria of suitability, other procedure and conditions for selection and appointment of judges to the higher judiciary. It has been rightly contended that one of the underlying principles for valid delegation of legislative power is that the legislature cannot delegate its essential legislative function. An equally important principle with regard to delegation of legislative principle was laid by the Supreme Court in Agricultural Market Committee v. Shalimar Chemical Works Ltd., (1997) 5 SCC 516:

The principle which, therefore, emerges out is that the essential legislative function consists of the determination of the legislative policy and the legislature cannot abdicate essential legislative function in favour of another. Power to make subsidiary legislation may be entrusted by the legislature to another body of its choice but the legislature should, before delegating, enunciate either expressly or by implication, the policy and the principles for the guidance of the delegates…” [para 26]

Similarly, the Supreme Court held in K.T. Plantation Pvt. Ltd. v. State of Karnataka, (2011) 9 SCC 1:

Law is settled that the court shall not invalidate a legislation on the ground of delegation of essential legislative functions or on the ground of conferring unguided, uncontrolled and vague powers upon the delegate without taking into account the Preamble of the Act as also other provisions of the statute in the event they provide good means of finding out the meaning of the offending statute. The question whether any particular legislation suffered from excessive delegation, has to be determined by the court having regard to the subject-matter, the scheme, the provisions of the statute including its Preamble and the facts and circumstances and the background on which the statute is enacted. See Bhatnagars & Co. Ltd. v. Union of India [AIR 1957 SC 478] and Mohmedalli v. Union of India [AIR 1964 SC 980]” [para 60]

Thus, the lack of guidance to the NJAC to frame regulations is a pertinent factor while addressing the contention on excessive delegation. It is firmly argued that the NJAC’s power to frame regulations under Section 12 of the NJAC Act is not unguided or arbitrary. Under sub-clause (c) of the newly inserted Article 124B of the Constitution, the NJAC is under a duty to “ensure that the person recommended is of ability and integrity”. Under Section 5(2), the NJAC shall recommend a candidate for appointment as a Judge of the Supreme Court on the basis of “ability, merit and any other criteria”. Sections 6(1) and 6(3) of the NJAC Act prescribe similar guidance for appointment of the Chief Justice and other judges of the High Courts. Correspondingly, Sections 12(2)(a) and (c) of the NJAC Act empower the NJAC to frame regulations for the criteria of suitability with respect to appointments, and other procedure and conditions for selection and appointment of Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. Under Section 12(2)(a) and (c), the NJAC can frame regulations with respect to criteria of suitability with respect to appointment of a Judge of the Supreme Court, and the High Court, respectively. In light of the principle of ejusdem generis, it can be safely argued that the power of the NJAC to frame regulations with regard to criteria of suitability is not unguided or unfettered. The Supreme Court in Kavalappara Kottarathil Kochuni v. State of Madras, AIR 1960 SC 1080 explained the principle of ejusdem generis in the following words:

…The rule is that when general words follow particular and specific words of the same nature, the general words must be confined to the things of the same kind as those specified…” [para 52]

The criteria of ability and merit, which find mention in Sections 5(2), and Sections 6(1) and 6(3) belong to a genus and are indicative of qualities that are essential for performing the task of a judge. The NJAC is to draw guidance from these words and specify “any other criteria” of a nature akin to the criteria specified by Parliament. Upon application of the rule of ejusdem generis, the phrase “any other criteria” would take colour from “ability” and “merit”. This would act as a safeguard against the NJAC laying down arbitrary criteria for appointment of judges. By virtue of the application of the principle of ejusdem generis, it is argued that Section 5(2), Sections 6(1) and 6(3) and Sections 12(2)(a) and (c) of the NJAC Act do not suffer from the vice of excessive delegation. Section 12 of the NJAC Act is not an instance of the Parliament having abdicated its essential legislative function to the NJAC. Parliament has laid down its policy with sufficient clarity, on the basis of which the NJAC is expected to operate.

Secondly, the approach adopted by the NJAC Act is in line with international best practice with regard to appointment of judges. Even the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005 (CRA 2005) of the United Kingdom, does not lay down any detailed suitability criteria for appointment of judges to the Supreme Court. Quite like the originally enacted Article 124, Section 25 of the CRA 2005 lays down eligibility criteria for appointment of a person as a judge of the Supreme Court (which includes criteria such as having held a judicial office for a period of at least 2 years, been a qualified practitioner for a period of at least 15 years, etc.). The selection process for appointments finds enunciation under Section 27 of the CRA 2005 which, in its sub-section (5), mandates that “Selection must be made on merit.” Evidently, CRA 2005 has only enumerated eligibility criteria for appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and it leaves wide discretion to the selection commission to assess the merit of a candidate by not enumerating the indicators of merit. In fact, the Supreme Court selection commission had by itself devised an “Information Pack” which enumerated the criteria for appointment of judges. In Part I of our defence of Article 124C, we had presented a similar position with regard to the original Article 124 which only laid down eligibility criteria for appointment of judges while leaving the assessment of suitability largely to the Memoranda of Procedure.

Similar has been the experience in the Republic of South Africa which also envisages a commission for the selection of Chief Justice of its Constitutional Court and the President and Deputy President of its Supreme Court of Appeal (the appointing body is called the Judicial Service Commission). This Commission also nominates the names of individuals who are considered for appointment as other judges of the Constitutional Court. Article 178(6) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa states:

The Judicial Service Commission may determine its own procedure, but decisions of the Commission must be supported by a majority of its members.

Evidently, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, like the CRA 2005 does not lay down any specific criteria pertaining to assessment of the suitability of a candidate for appointment and the Judicial Service Commission is given wide discretion in formulating its procedure vis-a-vis the appointment and selection process adopted by them. The illustrative experiences of the UK and South Africa clearly indicate that wide discretion is given to their appointment commissions as regards the criteria for suitability for appointment of judges. Hence, the authority to determine the suitability criteria which has been given to the NJAC under Sections 5, 6 and 12 of the NJAC Act lies in sync with international best practices pertaining to judicial appointment commissions.

Lastly, Article 124C only confers such regulation-making power on the NJAC as is necessary to carry out its procedure. The delegation of power to formulate rules/regulations prescribing procedural matters has been well-recognised. For instance, in Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Education v. Paritosh Bhupesh Kumar Sheth (1984) 4 SCC 27, the Supreme Court held:

So long as the body entrusted with the task of framing the rules or regulations acts within the scope of the authority conferred on it, in the sense that the rules or regulations made by it have a rational acts within the object and purpose of the Statute, the court should not concern itself with the wisdom or efficaciousness of such rules or regulations. It is exclusively within the province of the legislature and its delegate to determine, as a matter of policy, how the provisions of the Statute can best be implemented and what measures, substantive as well as procedural would have to be incorporated in the rules or regulations for the efficacious achievement of the objects and purposes of the Act….” [para 14]

In this regard, one of the provisions that the petitioners specifically challenged the validity of was Section 10(2) of the NJAC Act which lays down that the NJAC shall observe such rules of procedure, including the quorum at its meeting, as it may specify by regulations (under Section 12(2)(i)). The contentious issue was whether the NJAC can determine its own quorum by means of regulations. Quite unsurprisingly, the NJAC Act is not the only statute which comprises such a provision. Section 10(1) of the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, 1999, Section 8(1) of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997 and Section 7(1) of the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 are just some of the various statutes that envisage the body being constituted by these Acts as also the entity which lays down the quorum. Yet again, the NJAC Act does not create a legislative innovation in this regard.

It also deserves mention that laying down of voting requirements lies within the province of specifying procedure and the even the Parliament is well within its authority to lay down specifications with regard to the same by means of Parliamentary law. In any event, it is well-recognised that the requirement with regard to voting majorities is procedural, as evident from Kihoto Hollohon v. Zachilhu, 1992 Supp (2) SCC 651:

The amending power under Article 368 is subject to the substantive limitation in that the basic structure cannot be altered or the basic features of the Constitution destroyed. The limitation requiring a special majority is a procedural one…..” [para 65]

Thus, a provision such as Section 6(6), or the second proviso to Section 5(2), which lay down the voting requirements to be followed in the NJAC, are perfectly within the competence of the Parliament and cannot be challenged as an instance of excessive delegation.

Conclusion

The policy with regard to the NJAC Act is abundantly clear. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the NJAC Act explicitly contemplates “a broad based National Judicial Appointments Commission should be established for making recommendations for appointments of Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. The said Commission would provide a meaningful role for the judiciary, the executive and eminent persons to present their view points and make the participants accountable, while also introducing transparency in the selection process.” With the policy in place, the NJAC by means of regulations would only fill in relevant details with regard to the procedure to be followed by it. By no stretch of imagination can such regulation-making be challenged for being an excessive delegation of power. Hence, a challenge to Article 124C insofar it delegates the regulation making on the NJAC is misplaced.

Debating the NJAC: Article 124C, Excessive Delegation and the Separation of Powers: A Response – II (Guest Post)

(In a two-part series, Ritwika Sharma and Faiza Rahman respond to my essay on Article 124C, arguing that the provision is entirely constitutional)

Among the many contentious issues that engaged the attention of the Supreme Court in the NJAC case was Article 124C which has been alleged to be violative of the basic feature of the independence of the judiciary. It has also been attacked for entrusting the Parliament with a function that, till now, formed part of the Constitution.

On close scrutiny, it becomes evident that Article 124C empowers the Parliament in two respects: it commences with vesting Parliament with the legislative competence to regulate the procedure for appointment of Supreme Court and High Court judges. Thereafter, it provides the legal basis for the Parliament to empower the NJAC to lay down by regulations the procedure for discharge of its functions, manner of selection of persons and other matters considered necessary.

In Part I of our defence of Article 124C, it is argued that Article 124C cannot be held to be violative of the independence of the judiciary on the following grounds:

First, independence of the judiciary does not connote independence from Parliamentary law. In fact, this was a proposition that was expressly rejected by the framers of the Constitution. Due regard must be had to Article 50 in this context. Article 50, which is one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, states that “The State shall take steps to separate the judiciary from the executive in the public services of the State.

A brief glimpse into the drafting history of this Article would reveal that an amendment proposed by Prof. KT Shah which sought independence of the judiciary from Parliament as well, was expressly rejected by the Constituent Assembly. Prof. KT Shah moved the following amendment in the Constituent Assembly Debate dated 23rd May 1949 (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VIII, Book 3, p. 218):

Sir, I move:

That under Chapter IV of Part V, the following new article be added:-

“102-A. Subject to this constitution the Judiciary in India shall be completely separate from and wholly independent of the Executive or the Legislature.”

Prof. K.T Shah while proposing Article 102-A stated-

“In this amendment: it is not merely the separation of judiciary from the Executive, but also its independence, and I want it to be also separate from the legislature and the executive.

However, Prof. KT Shah’s proposed amendment was decisively rejected by the Constituent Assembly. Shri KM Munshi on 23rd May 1949 (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VIII, Book 3, p. 220-221) opposed the inclusion of Article 102A stating that:

“This Constitution is based on an entirely different principle, adopting the British Model. We have invested the Judiciary with as much independence as is possessed by the Privy Council in England and to large extent, by the Supreme Court of America; but any water-tight compartment of powers have been rejected. That is with regard to separation of powers.

Evidently, the framers of the Constitution did not envisage the inclusion of a standalone article which would have enforced a strict separation of powers between the three branches of government. A construction of judicial independence which seeks independence from Parliament, or Parliamentary law would anyway be an anomaly given the framework of our Constitution. In fact, the scheme of the Constitution itself reveals that certain pertinent aspects pertaining to judicial functioning are regulated by Parliamentary law. Some illustrative examples of such laws are:

1. The Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968 which regulates the procedure of investigation during the impeachment proceedings against a judge. This legislation emanates from the enabling Article 124(5) by virtue of which Parliament is empowered by law to regulate the procedure for the presentation of an address and for the investigation and proof of the misbehavior or incapacity of a Judge under clause (4). An observation was made in this regard in Sarojini Ramaswami v. Union of India, (1992) 4 SCC 506 this Hon’ble Court:

Article 124(5) mandates enactment of a parliamentary law to regulate the investigation and proof of misbehaviour or incapacity of a Judge under Clause (4) and pursuant to it the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968 has been enacted by the Parliament….” [para 24]

2. Similarly, Parliament has enacted the Supreme Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1958 and the High Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1954. The powers to enact both these laws can be respectively traced to Articles 125 and 221 of the Constitution. These provisions allow the Parliament to enact laws determining the salaries, pension and other privileges of Judges of Supreme Court (Article 125), and of the High Court (Article 221).

3. Under Article 138, Parliament may by law confer on the Supreme Court such further jurisdiction and powers with respect to any of the matters in the Union List. Consequently, Parliament has widened the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by means of the Supreme Court (Enlargement of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Act, 1970.

Similar provisions pertaining to other aspects of judicial functioning exist throughout Chapter IV of Part V (the Union Judiciary) and Chapter V of Part VI (the High Courts in the States) of the Constitution. Essentially, Article 124C empowers the Parliament to enact a law regulating the procedure for appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and High Court, something which is entirely within its legislative competence. It would be anybody’s case that the method to remove judges as well fixation of their salaries and conditions of service are aspects vital to the independence of the judiciary. These laws cited above are just as vulnerable to amendment by the Parliament as provisions of the NJAC Act would be. The framers of the Constitution could not have intended to compromise with the independence of the judiciary by vesting Parliament with the power to enact such laws. In fact, such provisions are reinforcement of the wisdom of the Parliament to enact laws which are not prejudicial to judicial independence. Clearly, regulation of certain facets of judicial functioning by means of Parliamentary law is not an innovation devised by Article 124C.

Secondly, it argued that Articles 124 and 217, as they originally stood, did not lay down the entire procedure for appointment of judges. The first limb of this argument hinges upon the crucial distinction between “eligibility” and “suitability”. Articles 124 and 217 only laid down “eligibility” criteria for appointment of judges which, at the most, are the minimum threshold criteria for filtering prospective candidates. The difference between “eligibility” and “suitability” was discussed in Mahesh Chandra Gupta v. Union of India, (2009) 8 SCC 273:

At this stage, we may state that, there is a basic difference between “eligibility” and “suitability”. The process of judging the fitness of a person to be appointed as a High Court Judge falls in the realm of suitability. Similarly, the process of consultation falls in the realm of suitability. On the other hand, eligibility at the threshold stage comes under Article 217(2)(b). This dichotomy between suitability and eligibility finds place in Article 217(1) in juxtaposition to Article 217(2)….” [para 39]

The Supreme Court further held in Mahesh Chandra Gupta

The appointment of a Judge is an executive function of the President. Article 217(1) prescribes the constitutional requirement of “consultation”. Fitness of a person to be appointed a Judge of the High Court is evaluated in the consultation process (see Basu’s Commentary on the Constitution of India, 6th Edn., p. 234). Once this dichotomy is kept in mind, then, it becomes clear that evaluation of the worth and merit of a person is a matter entirely different from eligibility of a candidate for elevation. Article 217(2), therefore, prescribes a threshold limit or an entry point for a person to become qualified to be a High Court Judge whereas Article 217(1) provides for a procedure to be followed before a person could be appointed as a High Court Judge, which procedure is designed to test the fitness of a person to be so appointed: his character, his integrity, his competence, his knowledge and the like.” [para 41]

Articles 124(3) and 217(2) must be viewed against the backdrop of the distinction between “eligibility” and “suitability”, as enunciated upon in Mahesh Chandra Gupta. When Article 124(3) mandates that a person shall not be qualified for appointment as a Judge of the Supreme Court unless he is a citizen of India and (a) has been for at least five years a Judge of a High Court or of two or more High Courts in succession; or (b) has been for at least ten years an advocate of a High Court or of two or more High Courts in succession; or (c) is a distinguished jurist, in the opinion of the President, it only lays down the minimum eligibility criteria that need to be fulfilled for a person to be considered for appointment. Similarly, Article 217(2) lays down minimum eligibility criteria for appointment of a person as a judge of a High Court. Clearly, the framers of the Constitution found sufficient to only enumerate the “eligibility criteria” within the four corners of the Constitution. “Suitability criteria” would have to be located somewhere else.

The second limb of this argument addresses the issue of “suitability criteria”. Such criteria which are meant to assess the fitness of prospective candidates are considered in accordance with the Memorandum Showing the Procedure for Appointment of the Chief Justice of India and Judges of the Supreme Court of India as well as the Memorandum Showing the Procedure for Appointment and Transfer of Chief Justices and Judges of High Courts, documents which have been agreed to jointly by the Chief Justice of India and the Ministry of Law and Justice. Considerations such as inter se seniority of puisne judges, and conditions such as medical fitness are some of the aspects which are to be considered under these Memoranda. For instance, for appointment of the Chief Justice of India, the Memorandum of Procedure for the Supreme Court lays down that:

Appointment to the office of the Chief Justice of India should be of the seniormost Judge of the Supreme Court considered fit to hold the office. The Union Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs would, at the appropriate time, seek the recommendation of the outgoing Chief Justice of India for the appointment of the next Chief Justice of India.” [para 2]

In the Memorandum for High Courts also, seniority is considered to be a determining factor:

For purposes of elevation as Chief Justices the inter-se seniority of puisne Judges will be reckoned on the basis of their seniority in their own High Courts and they will be considered for appointment as Chief Justices in other High Courts when their turn would normally have come for being considered for such appointment in their own High Courts.” [para 3]

Hence, seniority is used as one of the criteria to determine suitability of a candidate under the Memoranda. The Memoranda, for both the Supreme Court and the High Courts lay down the procedure to be followed for appointment of the Chief Justice, Acting Chief Justice, permanent judges, additional judges, ad hoc judges and acting judges, as and when applicable. The Memorandum of Procedure for the High Courts also specifically lays down the procedure for transfer of a Judge from one High Court to another High Court. Keeping in view the framework of Articles 124 and 217, and the Memoranda of Procedure, it can be inferred that the framers of the Constitution did not find it imperative to include suitability criteria within the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, thus far, the task of laying down suitability criteria is being performed by the executive by means of these memoranda of procedure. It is difficult to imagine how the independence of the judiciary would be violated if this task is now entrusted to the Parliament under Article 124C.

In light of the above, it is submitted that Article 124C is not violative of the independence of the judiciary. In fact, it is an attempt to put flesh and blood into the skeletal structure that the 99th Amendment seeks to create. In the second part of this essay, we would proceed to argue that Article 124C is not an instance of excessive delegation, and falls within the permissible limits of delegated legislation.

Debating the NJAC: Article 124C, Excessive Delegation and the Separation of Powers – A Response (Guest Post)

(In the previous essay, I had argued that Article 124C should be struck down, because it violates the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, both of which are part of the basic structure. In this essay, Vishwajith Sadananda and Malavika Prasad respond to that claim, arguing that 124C is entirely constitutional).

The charge against Art. 124C is that the Parliament has abdicated its constituent powers, by delegating those powers to the legislature, i.e. the Parliament in its legislative capacity, and that such excessive delegation violates the principle of separation of powers. To contest this proposition, we argue that first, the nature of amending power itself requires it to be sovereign, and thus superior to the legislative, executive and judicial powers, and second, that separation of powers cannot possibly apply in the context of a power that is subordinate to another.

While Ray C.J. may have been on the minority on the specific point that constituent power is sovereign, in that it is “independent of the doctrine of separation of powers” (paragraph 48, Indira Nehru Gandhi vs Raj Narain), the proposition is not alien to our understanding of constituent amending power today. After Keshavananda and Indira Gandhi, the constituent amending power is only subject to the basic structure doctrine. In other words, an exercise of constituent amending power is not plenary or “sovereign”, akin to the constituent power to constitute a sovereign. This is because, while wielding constituent power to frame the constitution, the framers are bound by no constitutional constraints; they wield a sovereignty by which they validate the constitution (call this ‘original sovereignty’). This sovereignty is external in a manner of speaking, having been arrogated by the constituent body to itself, rather than conferred by a superior or sovereign authority or instrument. Necessarily then, it cannot be subject to any fetters, there being no fettering authority or instrument. This sovereign has plenary powers to author new political systems, forms of governance and a constitutive instrument.

Once constituted however, the political essence of the Constitution so created forms the basic structure of the Constitution. The basic structure can thus only be altered by an institution vested with ‘original sovereignty’, since it would amount to authoring a new political form. Since the constituent amending power finds its origin in Constitution of India, and since a power originating from an instrument cannot possibly be larger than the instrument creating it, even at its widest exercise, amending power under Art. 368 is inherently limited in extent, compared with the constituent power to frame a constitution. These constraints are neither externally imposed nor implied into constituent power. These constraints are the basic structure, as we understand it today.

The legislative, executive and judicial powers, akin to the constituent amending power, are powers that were created by an exercise of sovereign, plenary constituent power. To that extent, the legislative, executive and judicial powers can also be exercised only subject to the Constitution. However, it would be incorrect to suggest a likeness on all fronts, between these three powers and the constituent amending power. Constituent amending power is still the superior power in that an exercise of amending power under Article 368 can widen or constrict the extent or fields of judicial, executive or legislative power vesting in the wings of the State, so long as the basic structure is not destroyed. Consider, for instance, the amendments that have introduced whole new entries into List I of the Seventh Schedule (Entry 2A, and amended Entry 63 etc.), thereby significantly expanding the fields in which the Parliament is competent to legislate. It is this recognition of the superiority of the constituent amending power that underlies the impermissibility of conflating Parliament’s power under Art. 368 with its power under Art. 245.

 

 

SepPowers

 

It is also this superiority of the constituent amending power that impelled the Court in Indira Gandhi to prevent the amending power from being used to carry out judicial acts (as Art. 329A(4) sought to), such as voiding judgments and orders of Courts. The reasoning was not rooted in impermissibly upsetting the separation of powers vertically, between the constituent amending power and judicial power, by way of “delegation”. It was based in the impermissibility of divesting the High Court of its judicial powers, and then, worse still, not conferring that jurisdiction upon any other Court. (Para 201, Khanna’s judgment in Indira Gandhi), thus taking away the right to a free and fair election, and the remedy to challenge it (para 206). The right to a free and fair election was central to the democratic form of government, that is a part of our basic structure.

The logic of Hinds vs The Queen and Madras Bar Association vs Union of India, that converting judicial power to executive power upsets the separation of powers, would apply with equal force to conversion of constituent power to legislative power only if there existed a separation of powers vertically. There cannot possibly be a separation of powers (whether rigid or flexible) vertically, between constituent amending power and the three powers subordinate to it, as such separation is antithetical to the very power to amend. The power of amendment is only subject to the basic structure doctrine. Outside of the constraints posed by the basic structure, the power of amendment is plenary. Until we evolve a norm that constitutionalises the separation of powers vertically, between the amending power and other powers, and that too, to the extent that it becomes part of the basic structure of the Constitution, the prevalent understanding of the principle, as between the three equally situated powers cannot be sought to be pressed in force here.

Independence of the Judiciary

Art. 124C is next assailed on the ground that empowering the Parliament to enact laws on the procedure of appointments disturbs the independence of the judiciary. Article 124C which reads as follows:

124C. Parliament may, by law, regulate the procedure for the appointment of Chief Justice of India and other Judges of the Supreme Court and Chief Justices and other Judges of High Courts and empower the Commission to lay down by regulations the procedure for the discharge of its functions, the manner of selection of persons for appointment and such other matters as may be considered necessary by it.”

Art. 124C must be viewed in the context of the provisions that empower the Parliament to enact laws generally: Articles 245 (which begins with the words “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution…”) and Article 246. The source of the power of the Parliament is thus the Constitution itself, and the amendment is not, and cannot, confer any new or additional powers. In exercise of the powers vested in it, the Parliament can enact laws in the fields enumerated in the Seventh Schedule; in this specific case, the Parliament is allowed the breadth of Entry 77 of List I. Thus, exercise of power under Art. 124C cannot possibly result in damage to the basic structure that is irremediable, being effected by way of a legislation, given that both the power to legislate as well as the fields of legislation were in the Constitution to begin with. Any argument that Article 124C could enable the Parliament to effectively undo the independence of judiciary is necessarily premised on the assumption that Articles 245-246 read with Entry 77 of List I are incapable, in and of themselves, to ensure the independence of the judiciary. Such a proposition obviously cannot be countenanced, as provisions of the Constitution cannot possibly be unconstitutional, for being destructive of the basic structure.

It is an interesting and noteworthy aside, that under the collegium system, the manner of appointments was in fact determined by two executive memorandums- the “Memorandum Showing the Procedure for Appointment of the Chief Justice of India and Judges of the Supreme Court” and the “Memorandum Showing the Procedure for Appointment and Transfer of the Chief Justices of India and Judges of the High Court”, which are extra-constitutional instruments.

As for the claim that Article 124C violates the independence of the judiciary, the true nature of judicial independence under the Indian Constitution cannot be lost sight of. In India, in the context of separation of powers, we follow a system of checks and balances, with each wing ensuring that power does not get concentrated in the hands of the other wings.

At this juncture, it would be apt to revisit the constitutional debates on the question of separation of the judiciary from the legislature and its impact on judicial independence. On 23rd May 1949, KT Shah introduced an amendment which mandated the separation of the judiciary and the legislature on the grounds of preserving judicial independence. In reply to the introduction of the said amendment, KK Munshi was of the view:

“: …We have invested the Judiciary with as much independence as is possessed by the Privy Council in England and to large extent, by the Supreme Court of America; but any water-tight compartments of powers have been rejected. That is with regard to separation of powers.

As regards the question of the independence of the Judiciary, which my Friend Professor Shah emphasised, ample care has been taken in this Chapter that the judicial system in India under this Constitution should be an integrated system, and that it should be independent of the Executive in so far as it could be in a modern State. The House will see as it proceeds to deal with this Chapter that once a Judge is appointed, his remuneration and allowances etc. remain constant. Further he is not removable except under certain conditions like a two-thirds majority of the two Houses… These are considered sufficient guarantees of the independence of the Judiciary throughout those countries which have adopted England as the model. These safe guards are there.”

Subsequently, the amendment was negatived.

Under our constitutional scheme, the judiciary has never traditionally been completely free from Parliamentary supervision. For example, the salaries of judges are governed by a law passed by the Parliament under Article 125. The impeachment of judges of the Supreme Court, under Article 124(5), is also governed by a law passed by the Parliament. It goes without saying that both these aspects have always been considered to have a central role in ensuring the independence of the judiciary, world over.

As one of us has argued before on this blog, the amendment will have to be tested on the basis of the degree or extent to which the independence of the judiciary is disturbed. From our analysis above, it becomes evident that Article 124C does not eviscerate the independence of the judiciary but only subjects it to Parliamentary supervision, in tune with our constitutional tradition.

(Disclosure: Vishwajith has been involved in assisting the Union of India in this case)

Debating the NJAC — Article 124C, excessive delegation, and the separation of powers

Over the last one week, we have debated the constitutionality of Article 124A of the 99th Amendment, which constitutes the National Judicial Appointments Commission. Let us now consider an equally important provision that the 99th Amendment seeks to insert into the Constitution – Article 124C.

Article 124C authorises the Parliament to regulate the procedure for the appointment of Chief Justice of India and other Judges of the Supreme Court and Chief Justices and other Judges of High Courts and empower the Commission to lay down by regulations the procedure for the discharge of its functions, the manner of selection of persons for appointment and such other matters as may be considered necessary by it.” This is in contrast to the old, un-amended Article 124, which laid out the entire procedure of judicial appointments within the Constitution itself (as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Second Judges’ Case, 1993 (4) SCC 441). Consequently, under the old regime, the appointment process was part of the constitutional scheme (i.e., contained within the Constitution), and any change in the process of appointments could only be made through a constitutional amendment. The 99th Amendment – which introduces Articles 124A, B and C – is itself evidence of this fact. By contrast, under the new regime, a significant part of the appointments process will be shaped and structured by the Parliament through “regulations” – i.e., through the process of ordinary law-making.

It is well-accepted that Parliament acts in different capacities while amending the Constitution, and while passing ordinary legislation. The former is an exercise of constituent power, while the latter is an exercise of legislative power (Indira Nehru Gandhi vs Raj Narain, 1975 SuppSCC 1). Being a Constitutional amendment, Article 124C is therefore an exercise of Parliament’s constituent power, which delegates the (a significant part of the) procedure for appointment of judges to Parliament exercising its legislative power. Furthermore, Article 124C also authorises Parliament, while acting in exercise of its legislative power, to delegate in turn to an executive authority (the NJAC), the ultimate process of judicial selection. In this essay, I will argue that this form of delegation violates the basic structure of the Constitution by removing the core of the appointments process from the Constitutional scheme, and placing it within reach of ordinary legislation as well as executive action.

Let’s start with a hypothetical. Consider Articles 54 and 55 of the Constitution. Article 54 stipulates that the President shall be elected by an electoral college. Article 55 lays down detailed guidelines for the election, aimed at achieving parity of representation. Suppose that through a constitutional amendment, Parliament was to erase Articles 54 and 55, replace them with a new “Article 54A”, which stated: “Parliament shall regulate the procedure for the appointment of the President of India and such other matters as may be considered necessary by it”. I suspect many of us would find this amendment deeply problematic. To understand why, we need to take a detour through the principle of excessive legislative delegation, and then draw an analogy with Article 124C.

Excessive Delegation: Scope and Principles

The concept of excessive delegation arose in the context of ordinary legislation. In In Re the Delhi Laws Act, AIR 1951 SC 332, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously endorsed the proposition that parliament may not delegate “essential legislative functions” (although the judges differed about the outcome of the case). In his minority opinion (although not on this point), Kania CJI laid out the classic statement of law:

   “When a legislative body passes an Act it has exercised its legislative function. The essentials of such function are the determination of the legislative policy and its formulation as a rule of conduct. These essentials are the characteristics of a legislature by itself… Those essentials are preserved, when the legislature specifies the basic conclusions of fact, upon ascertainment of which, from relevant data, by a designated administrative agency… it ordains that its statutory command is to be effective. The legislature having thus made its laws, it is clear that every detail for working it out and for carrying the enactments into operation and effect may be done by the legislature or may be left to another subordinate agency or to some executive officer.” (paragraph 11)

   As all the judges agreed, it was the “essentials” of the legislative function that could not be delegated. While conditional or subordinate legislation, i.e., powers conferred upon the executive that were either designed to give effect to the law, or ascertain facts as a pre-requisite for bringing the legislation into force, were allowed, conferral of “powers of legislation” was not. In Kania J.’s opinion:

     “… the Indian Legislature… could not create another body with the same powers as it has or in other words, efface itself.” (paragraph 17).

According to Justice Kania – citing American scholarship with approval – to survive this test, the standard must not be too indefinite or general. It may be laid down in broad general terms.” (paragraph 30) The distinction that is crucial to make – as enunciated by Taft C.J. in Hampton and Co. vs United States, 276 U.S. 394 (1928) – is between “the delegation of power to make the law which necessarily involves a discretion as to what it shall be and conferring an authority or discretion as to its execution to be exercised under and in pursuance of the law.” (paragraph 31)

The dictum in In Re Delhi Laws Act was subsequently refined. Broadly, there are two tests to determine whether legislation suffers from the vice of excessive delegation. The first is the “control test”, which was laid out by Justice Mathew in M.K. Paplah & Sons vs The Excise Commissioner, AIR 1975 SC 1007, where the learned Justice held that:

“[the]… laying of rules before the legislature is control over delegated legislationthe legislature may also retain its control over its delegate by exercising its power of repeal.” (paragraphs 18, 22)

Implicit in Justice Mathew’s formulation is the idea that Parliament must exercise a continuing supervision over the executive while the latter is exercising its delegated legislative powers. This was made explicit by Krishna Iyer J. in Avinder Singh vs State of Punjab, AIR 1979 SC 321, where he observed:

“… even if there be delegation, parliamentary control over delegated legislation should be a living continuity as a constitutional necessity.” (paragraph 12)

The second test is the “functional test”, developed in detail by Justice Khanna in Gwalior Rayon Silk Mfg vs Asst. Commr. Of Sales Tax, AIR 1974 SC 1660. Referring to the American constitutional scholar, Willoughby, Justice Khanna observed:

   “The qualifications to the rule prohibiting the delegation of legislative power… are those which provide that while the real law-making power may not be delegated, a discretionary authority may be granted to executive and administrative authorities : (1) to determine in specific cases when and how the powers legislatively conferred are to be exercised and (2) to establish administrative rules and regulations, binding both upon their subordinates and upon the public, fixing in detail the manner in which the requirements of the statutes are to be met, and the rights therein created to be enjoyed.” (paragraph 24)

He then observed:

“… in delegating powers to an administrative body with respect to the administration of statutes, the legislature must ordinarily prescribe a policy, standard, or rule for their guidance and must not vest them with an arbitrary and uncontrolled discretion with regard thereto, and a statute or ordinance which is deficient in this respect is invalid. In other words, in order to avoid the pure delegation of legislative power by the creation of an administrative agency, the legislature must set limits on such agency’s power and enjoin on it a certain course of procedure and rules of decision in the performance of its function; and, if the legislature fails to prescribe with reasonable clarity the limits of power delegated to an administrative agency, or if those limits are too broad, its attempt to delegate is a nullity.”

The Scope and Nature of Article 124C

What is the relevance of this? I would contend that just as the legislature is not permitted to transfer or abdicate essential legislative functions to the executive, the parliament, in exercising its constituent power, is not permitted to transfer or abdicate its constituent functions to the legislature. This is because such an act would violate two of the basic features of the Constitution – separation of powers and the rule of law – and more specifically, Section 124C also violates the basic feature of judicial independence. Each of these issues will be discussed in the context of Section 124C.

Separation of Powers

It has been repeatedly held by the Supreme Court that the separation of powers is a basic feature of the Constitution. (Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala, AIR 1972 SC 1461; Indira Nehru Gandhi vs Raj Narain) The precise character of the separation of powers in India – which commentators have often classified as a “flexible” separation instead of a “rigid” one – flows from the Constitution. In other words, the structure and allocation of powers between the three wings of State are determined by the Constitutional scheme. Consequently, it is not open to Parliament to transfer powers from one of the wings of State to another, even through a Constitutional amendment (because this would upset the Constitutional scheme of separation of powers).

The contention that Parliament, while acting in exercise of its constituent power of amendment, must respect the institutional structure and arrangement of the separation of powers, was upheld by in Indira Nehru Gandhi vs Raj Narain, in which it was argued that the 39th Amendment, which sought to retrospectively validate Indira Gandhi’s election result and bar it from judicial scrutiny, violated the basic structure. Before the Supreme Court, A.K. Sen, arguing in support of the 39th Amendment, stated:

     “The constituent power is independent of the doctrine of separation of powers. Separation of powers is when the Constitution is framed laying down the distribution of the powers in the different, organs such as the legislative, executive and the judicial power. The constituent power springs as the fountain head and partakes of sovereignty and is the power which creates the organ and distributes the powers. therefore, in a sense the constituent power is all embracing and is at once judicial, executive and legislative, or in a sense super power. The constituent power can also change the system of checks and balances upon which the separation of powers is based.” (paragraph 521)

Ray C.J. agreed with this contention, holding that “the constituent power is independent of the doctrine of separation of powers. The constituent power is sovereign” (paragraph 48). However, Ray C.J. was in the minority on this specific point, and his reasoning has never been followed. In that same case, Justice Khanna observed:

     “A declaration that an order made by a court of law is void is normally part of the judicial function and is not a legislative function. Although there is in the Constitution of India no rigid separation of powers, by and large the spheres of judicial function and legislative function have been demarcated and it is not permissible for the legislature to encroach upon the judicial sphere. It has accordingly been held that a legislature while it is entitled to change with retrospective effect the law which formed the basis of the judicial decision, it is not permissible to the legislature to declare the judgment of the court to be void or not binding.” (paragraph 190)

In addition to Justice Khanna, Justice Beg also held the 39th Amendment to be void for violating the basic feature of the separation of powers, since it sought to concentrate judicial power in the hands of the Parliament (paragraph 690). Two judges out of five, therefore, specifically invalidated a constitutional amendment because it sought to change the separation of powers scheme that flowed from the Constitution.

More recently, in Madras Bar Association vs Union of India (2014 (10) SCC 1), the Supreme Court quoted the following excerpt from the Privy Council decision in Hinds vs The Queen, 1976 All ER (1) 353:

   “What Parliament cannot do, consistently with the separation of powers, is to transfer from the judiciary to any executive body whose members… a discretion to determine the severity of the punishment to be inflicted upon an individual member of a class of offenders.” (paragraph 22)

It is submitted that the logic of Hinds vs The Queen and Madras Bar Association vs Union of India – namely, that converting judicial power to executive power upsets the separation of powers that flows from the Constitution – applies with equal force to parliament converting constituent power to legislative power. By doing this, Parliament grants to itself (functioning as a legislature) the power to change through ordinary law-making what earlier could be changed only through constituent lawmaking. This, naturally, aggrandises the power of the Parliament at the expense of the other branches. The only difference with the more familiar cases in Hinds and Madras Bar Association is that instead of taking power from one of the other co-ordinate branches, the Parliament is taking it away directly from the Constitution. The violation of the basic structure is therefore clear.

In sum: A matter that was regulated by the Constitution (appointment of judges) under the unamended Article 124 cannot, via amendment, be delegated to merely legislative control, as this violates the principle of separation of powers.

     Judicial Independence

Article 124C is not only destructive of the separation of powers more generally, but is also specifically destructive of judicial independence, which has been held to be part of the basic structure (Second Judges Case), and has been admitted to be so by the Respondents in this case. Judicial appointments have also been held to be an essential aspect of judicial independence (Sub-Committee on Judicial Accountability vs Union of India, (1991) 4 SCC 699; Union of India vs Pratibha Bonnerjea, (1995) 6 SCC 765). It is for this reason that the erstwhile Article 124 regulated the system of judicial appointments as part of the constitutional scheme.

However, under the new Articles 124A-B-C regime, the only aspect that is part of the Constitutional scheme is the make-up of the NJAC, in Article 124A. As is evident from the NJAC Act, Article 124C allows the Parliament to make rules with respect to critical issues such as quorum, vote weightage, veto powers, tie-breaks, and even selection criteria for the “two eminent persons”, who constitute one-third of the strength of the NJAC. It is obvious that each of these issues can have a significant impact upon the outcome of the selections process, and taken together, they can change its entire character. For the reasons adduced above, this amounts to a significant delegation of constituent power, and is therefore impermissible.

Article 124C and Excessive Delegation

It might be argued that the delegation in this case is within permissible parametres. Reliance might be placed upon the cases cited above to argue that the policy has been laid out in Article 124A and B, and the goal of C is to simply provide for day-to-day implementation. A quick glance at 124A, B and C reveals, however, that both the functionality test, and the control test, have been violated.

Control

As discussed above, the nub of the control test is there should be ongoing supervision, a “living continuity” of control. This is impossible under the 124A-B-C regime, because the Parliament only acts in its constituent capacity when it is amending the Constitution. The difficulties of putting together super-majorities to amend the Constitution means that this is an infrequent occurrence. Consequently, once 124C has delegated the major questions of appointment to legislative control, without any guidance under 124A or B, it is obvious that supervisory control is impossible.

This position is exacerbated by the fact that after I.R. Coelho vs Union of India ((2007) 2 SCC 1), it is arguable that ordinary legislation is not subject to the basic structure. This leads to a perverse situation, where the only possible form of control – that of approaching the Courts – will be unavailable if Parliament, in pursuance of its authority under Article 124C, frames perverse rules or regulations dealing with the constitution and procedures of the NJAC, which completely undermine the independence of the judiciary, but which Parliament is not barred from doing under 124A-B-C as they stand.

Functionality

As pointed out above, the 124A-B-C scheme, as it stands, leaves huge swathes of discretion, in critical areas, to the Parliament (which, in turn, is further allowed to leave them to the Commission itself). With respect to the workings of the NJAC, these include issues of quorum, voting weightage, tie-breakers, and selection criteria, to name just four. There is no “guidance” provided by the wording of Article 124A, which solely deals with the composition of the NJAC, or 124B, which solely deals with appointment of judges on the basis of ability and integrity. This, therefore, amounts to an impermissibly excessive delegation of an essential constitutional function to the legislature (arguing merely legislative power).

A comparison with the 122nd Amendment Bill to the Constitution, which establishes the GST regime, will make the contrast stark. Section 12 of the Amendment Act establishes the Goods and Services Tax Council, and provides the following details:

  1. every member
  2. the overall value that the Council must act in accordance with: “the need for a harmonised structure of goods and services tax and for the development of a harmonised national market for goods and services.”
  3. the quorum (half)
  4. the decision process (in a meeting)
  5. the modalities of decision-making (majority of not less than three-fourths of the weighted votes)
  6. the principles on which to weigh votes

It is evidence that none of these six crucial issues are present in the 99th Amendment. In fact, as the NJAC Act shows, all these have been left to the Parliament, through the process of ordinary law-making. This, therefore, is not a case of the parent law laying out the vision and encoding it as a legal rule, with only the “gaps” needing to be filled in by the delegate. On the other hand, this is an impermissible substitution of power – from the Constitution (via constituent law-making) to the Parliament (through legislative power).

Conclusion

Article 124C violates the basic structure of the Constitution, and ought to be struck down. By using its constituent power of amendment to draft a provision that delegates what was earlier part of the constitutional scheme to the ordinary legislature, Parliament, in framing Article 124C, has violated the basic feature of the separation of powers. Specifically, it has also violated judicial independence by placing far-reaching powers with regard to the manner and functioning of the NJAC in the hands of the legislature. Drawing an analogy with the rule against non-delegation of essential legislative functions, it can be seen that 124C does not have the safeguard of continuing supervision of the legislature. Furthermore, since Article 124A only provides for the make-up of the NJAC, the Article 124C’s delegation is not merely allowing the legislature to fill in gaps in order to give effect to the constitutional scheme, but effectively amounts to a substitution of constituent power. For all the reasons adduced above, this violates the basic structure.

It is also clear that if Article 124C is struck down, then nothing remains of the 99th Amendment, and the rest of it must go as well. Without Article 124C, all that remains is the Judicial Appointments Commission, without any further details about its functioning. Consequently, Article 124C is not severable from the rest of the 99th Amendment – if the Court decides to invalidate it, it must also strike down the entire Amendment, including Article 124A.