Sunday, May 27, 2007

A 'no-holds-barred' look at our higher judiciary

Just yesterday, I bought The Other Side of Justice (Hay House India, 2007) by Justice S.S. Sodhi, a former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court. The Tribune had a report on the book launch:

... [D]uring his comment [noted jurist Fali Nariman] cited various reasons for Justice Sodhi not being elevated as a Judge to the Supreme Court. He was critical of the present selection system for the judges of the apex court and referred to bias entering judges’ mind while selecting new incumbents.

He pointed out that the former Chief Justice of India and a former Judge of the Allahabad High Court and then a Judge of the Supreme Court, whom Justice Sodhi had not given favours, pitched in against him to ensure that he was not elevated to the apex court.

Almost all the stories in Justice Sodhi's book (and I'm about a third into its 300 pages), will make you go 'huh?'. Some of them will also make you wince, and a few will push you into serious outrage. All of them will make you wonder whether it's prudent to assign much sanctity to our 'temples of justice'. The blurb calls it a 'no-holds-barred' narrative, and it lives up to it: Justice Sodhi doesn't pull his punches, and isn't afraid to name names.

Here's a bizarre -- but real! -- story from the book's Chapter 11 titled Writ Run Wild:

Legend attributes to the Allahabad High Court the unique distinction of being the only court in the world from which an order could be obtained for restraining the movement of an aircraft in flight! Such an order has, of course, never actually been passed. But broach the subject of extraordinary orders given by the court and judges, serving and retired, and senior members of the bar will rattle off quite a few. Some peculiar orders came to my notice too: for instance, the matter of a government servant, who on attaining the age of 58, sought to challenge his retirement on the plea that, as per the rules governing his service, his age of superannuation was 60. At the preliminary hearing, an ex parte interim order was passed directing the government to ensure that he continued in service during the pendency of the writ petition. When the petition came up eventually for final hearing, it was found that his age of superannuation was indeed 58 and his petition was consequently dismissed. Ironically enough, he had by then enjoyed the benefit of continuance in service far beyond what he had or could have claimed: he had remained in service till the age of 67!

Unfortunately, the other stories are not funny at all. For example, the book deals at length with the case of one Mr. V.C. Misra who was at that time the chairman of the Bar Council of India. Justice Sodhi gives us many details about this man's high handed behaviour with a history of throwing his weight around. Misra clearly overstepped when he chose to yell -- in open court -- at Justice S.K. Keshote of the Allahabad High Court. He threatened that "he will get me transferred or see that impeachment motion is brought against me in Parliament." He followed it up with more abuse. Clearly, Misra was a man who thought he was invincible, and apparently, until then, he was. He certainly didn't count on Justice Keshote pursuing this case. The latter's formal complaint was referred to the Supreme Court, which found Misra guilty of 'criminal contempt of court', and "suspended [him] from practising as an advocate for a period of three years".

I believe the later chapters will get to unscrupulous and blatantly unethical behaviour by some members of the higher judiciary; even in the first part of the book there are some tantalizing pointers. Needless to say, I'm hooked!

[I hope he will write a book on his tenure as the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; see below.]

Justice Sodhi's book shines a spotlight on some of the shady corners in our judiciary -- particularly the higher judiciary. Coming from a member of this elite cohort, its message is both authentic and authoritative. I don't know what kind of influence it will have on our judiciary, but I sure hope his book will become a bestseller [believe me, its slightly legalese-laden prose is only a minor flaw].

So, here's my recommendation: Go ahead and buy it: it costs only 395 rupees. Make it a bestseller!

* * *

Have you ever noticed that when you become aware of something interesting, you start seeing similar things all around you? I bought this book yesterday, and what do I come across? This. And this. While this doesn't belong in the same category, it does go into how a 'judicial principle' has been created out of a procedurally suspect process.

* * *

Justice Sodhi also served as the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in the late nineties. During his tenure, TRAI's efforts towards open and transparent policy-making and implementation were thwarted by the biggest bully of that time: the Department of Telecommunication (DoT). Eventually, the NDA government amended the TRAI Act and got him off DoT's back. You can read about this ancient stuff here, here, here, here. The Tribune's report about amending the TRAI act is here. A recent column in the Telegraph discusses the kinds of bureaucratic meddling and hostility that constrain the functioning of our regulatory bodies.


  1. Vivek Kumar said...

    Take a look at Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. This might explain why you have suddenly started noticing things.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the review Abi ! Last Saturday I saw the book in Walden -- was not sure how it would turn out to be - now your inputs have given me the courage to buy it and read it ......

  3. Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the review Abi ! Last Saturday I saw the book in Walden -- was not sure how it would turn out to be - now your inputs have given me the courage to buy it and read it ......