Now that Justice Karnan has retired, will the SC let him off the hook?
Justice C S Karnan of the Calcutta High Court, the first judge in the judicial history of India to be sentenced to jail for contempt of court by the Supreme Court, retired in ignominy on 12 June at the end of his tenure.
Unsurprisingly, since he has been absconding since 9 May, there was no customary farewell party by the bar or the bench – another first for India’s judiciary.
Now, the question arises as to whether the apex court will follow through on its order where it sentenced the disgraced judge to six months imprisonment, or whether it will revoke the order in the larger of interest of upholding the dignity of the high office he held till yesterday.
The court is yet to pronounce a detailed order convicting Justice Karnan. Since then conviction order was passed on 9 May, Justice Pinaka Chandra Ghose, one of the seven judges in the bench, has retired.
Now the bench has to be reconstituted and the matter heard afresh. However, so long as the conviction order remains unexecuted, it is doubtful if Justice Karnan will be eligible for terminal benefits.
He has also petitioned to the President for suspension of the sentence.
The sequence of events
The apex court resorted to the extreme step only after exhausting all other avenues after Justice Karnan invited contempt by making allegations of corruption against judges of the apex court and various other courts.
Despite being barred from judicial function, Karnan went on to pass a bizarre order holding Chief Justice of India JS Khehar and six other fellow judges guilty under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and sentenced them to five years rigorous imprisonment (RI).
Even so, the bench held that he was mentally unstable and not in a position to defend himself and ordered that a panel of psychiatrists examine him.
Expectedly, Justice Karnan refused to undergo a sanity test when the Kolkata Police visited him at his residence. He told the police that he could not be forced to take such a test in the absence of guardians.
It was then that the court sentenced him to six months imprisonment. The order came a day after Karnan had ordered the arrest of eight apex court judges. Justice Karnan then fled to Chennai and when the Kolkata police attempted to chase after to execute the apex court’s order, he went absconding on 9 May.
With his mobile phone switched off, the police only knew that he headed for Srihalasthi, a holy shrine in Andhra Pradesh near Chennai. Despite a team of West Bengal police stationed in Chennai, the police has been unable to apprehend Justice Karnan yet, even with the help of Tamil Nadu police.
Pleas of mercy
Even as he was absconding, a lawyer in the apex court filed a petition on his behalf, pleading for recall the order for his arrest.
In his petition, Justice Karnan claimed that he was not under the disciplinary jurisdiction of either the Chief Justice of India or the seven-judge bench and that could be impeached only by an order of the President.
The bench, headed Chief Justice Khehar, however, dismissed his petition as maintainable, holding that he had committed “contempt of the judiciary of the gravest nature”. The bench also rejected the plea of Justice Karnan’s contention that a contemnor can be let off even after his conviction provided he tendered an unconditional apology.
In fact, when senior Supreme Court counsel K K Venugopal urged the bench to let him retire, the CJI thundered: “In contempt we do not distinguish… there is no color…sitting or non-sitting… if he thought we will not punish him as he is sitting, he is wrong.”
The controversial judge
Justice Karnan courted controversy even during his tenure as a judge of the Madras High Court, as a result of which he was eventually transferred to the Calcutta High Court.
In 2011, he caused a huge controversy when he called a press conference in Chennai to accuse one of his fellow judges of caste discrimination.
Then in 2015, Justice Karnan initiated a suo motu contempt proceeding against the then Chief Justice of Madras High Court Sanjay Kishan Kaul, accusing him of harassing him for being a Dalit.
In another incident, Justice Karnan stormed into a courtroom in the Madras High Court hearing a case of judicial appointment and demanded that he be allowed to hear the case.
At the time, he had said the collegium system “acts on its own whims and fancies” and the proposed National Judicial Appointment Commission “is the most appropriate for functioning of the judiciary in a unfettered manner”.
When he interfered with the order of a division bench, the registry wrote to the then CJI, who promptly him transferred to Kolkata.
Punishing judicial misconduct
There is currently no mechanism short of impeachment, under the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968 to discipline judges.
The larger question now is whether the court can suo motu initiate contempt proceedings. Secondly, can a judge be removed through the contempt process when he holds his office by appointment by the President and impeachment is the only way to get him out of the way?
Chances are, once a new bench is reconstituted, it may bring closure to this unsavoury episode in India’s judicial history by revoking the order that the errant judge be imprisoned, particularly if a mention is made on behalf of Karnan now that he has retired on his 62nd birthday.