NEW DELHI: In a major embarrassment for the Bombay high court, both the Centre and the SC collegium have disagreed with the manner in which the HC chose names of 18 advocates for appointment as HC judges during the short tenure of Chief Justice B P Dharmadhikari last year. The names have been sent back for reconsideration.
The hasty selection of so many advocates and non-scouting of talents available before the Bombay HC benches at Goa, Aurangabad and Nagpur was flagged by sitting SC judges A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, who were consultee judges for then collegium headed by then CJI S A Bobde. The decision to ask the HC to reconsider the names is an embarrassment to Justice Bobde who, just a month prior to retirement, sought to push the appointments.
If Justice Bobde did not heed to material objections by the two SC judges, who hail from the Bombay HC, it was the Centre that highlighted the merit in their reservations to return all the names for reconsideration to the three-member SC collegium, now headed by CJI N V Ramana, and which includes Justice Khanwilkar. Justice Chandrachud is now part of the five-member SC collegium.
The government returned the names on August 12 to the SC collegium, which on August 17 decided to send the names back to Bombay HC for reconsideration. The Union law ministry on September 6 wrote a letter along with the returned names requesting the HC to reconsider their suitability, official sources said.
The Bombay HC, during the very short tenure of CJ Dharmadhikari, had recommended 22 names — 18 advocates and four judicial officers — for appointment as judges. The four judicial officers have been appointed as HC judges by the Centre.
Both Justices Khanwilkar and Chandrachud had in writing informed CJI Bobde to send all names back to present Bombay HC CJ Dipankar Datta for effective evaluation of merit and maintaining objectivity in the constitutional process for selection of HC judges. Sources said the two judges had felt that Bombay HC, being in the financial capital of the country, required judges with domain knowledge in emerging fields of law and suggested that since Datta has been chief justice for quite some time, he should be asked to reconsider the names.
When CJI Bobde had asked Justice Chandrachud to specify objections against individuals, the latter had written an even more stinging response and said when he was suggesting reconsideration of the entire list, to give an opinion on individuals would amount to “cherry picking”, the sources said. After less than encouraging views from Justices Khanwilkar and Chandrachud, the CJI had sought the opinion of Justice U U Lalit on the names.
With just a little more than a month to go for his retirement, CJI Bobde had felt that the vacancies in the Bombay HC needed to be filled urgently and scheduled the collegium meeting without waiting for the response from Justice Lalit. The meeting found 13 of the 22 suitable for appointment — nine advocates and four judicial officers.
Justice Dharmadhikari was acting CJ of Bombay HC from February 20 to March 19 last year. He was CJ from March 20 till his superannuation on April 27, 2020. Justices Khanwilkar and Chandrachud have said it would be well nigh impossible for a chief justice to prepare a list of 22 probable candidates within such a short span.
They said shortlisting a candidate requires the HC CJ to watch the performance of the advocates, consult bar leaders and colleague judges about the integrity, ability and capability of each individual. They said most of the recommended persons are in and around 55 years of age and appointing persons of this age group would not be advisable as they would have a short tenure of around six years as HC judges, who retire at the age of 62 years