ON 25 JUNE THIS YEAR, the Madras High Court Advocates Association (MHAA), a large, motley crew of practising lawyers in Chennai, made an unusual demand. They wrote to the chief justice of India and his four most senior colleagues—the “collegium” responsible for selecting judges to the higher judiciary—requesting that a list of 15 people recommended for elevation to their High Court’s bench be rejected. The list of persons nominated by the Madras High Court’s acting chief justice, in consultation with his two most senior colleagues, “falls far short of the standards set out in the various judgments of the Supreme Court,” the MHAA wrote in the first of a series of representations. What’s more, the proposed candidates had been selected, according to the MHAA, based on a number of extraneous criteria, including caste, religion, office affiliations and political considerations.
Their assertions were soon echoed by the Forum for Integrity in Governance, a Chennai-based civil society coalition. On 24 July 2013, the group, which comprises, among others, the advocate Prashant Bhushan, the former civil servant and adviser to the United Nations BS Raghavan, and former Railway Board chairman YP Anand, wrote to the president of India demanding that he turn down the controversial list of proposed judges. “We understand,” said the forum, “that [the judges] are being chosen on divisive considerations and intense, unhealthy lobbying.” Since then, according to news reports, eight of the 15 nominees have been cleared by the Supreme Court’s collegium, and await only the president’s official seal on their appointments.
Charges of prejudice have been levelled against such collegia before. In May 2013, more than 1,000 lawyers of the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s Bar association signed a resolution, contesting the recommendation of seven nominees for elevation to the court’s bench. The candidates, selected from a pool of lawyers and judges of the lower judiciary with more than ten years of experience, were ill-suited to the rigours of judicature, according to the Bar. “Nepotism and favouritism is writ large,” the lawyers wrote. “We all need to rise to the occasion and oppose such recommendation.”