In a big set back to the Central government, the Supreme Court on Friday struck down National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act, the legislation passed by the Parliament laying out a new system of appointing judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts. With this order, the apex court has restored the Collegium system, which was replaced by the NJAC last year when the bill was passed by both the houses of the Parliament.
Pronouncing its verdict at 10:30 AM on Friday in a packed courtroom, the Constitutional bench of Justices JS Khehar, MB Lokur, Kurian Joseph, AK Goel and Justice J Chelmeswar gave a split verdict, with the majority declaring NJAC Act as “unconstitutional”.
In a 4:1 split order, four judges — Justices JS Khehar, MB Lokur, Kurian Joseph and AK Goel — struck down the new law as unconstitutional, while the lone judge Justice J Chelmeswar held otherwise.
Pronouncing the verdict, Justice Khehar said that the system of appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice and judges of the high courts and transfer of judges from one high court to another has been existing in the Constitution prior to the 99th amendment, the amendment providing for the formation of a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC).
Reacting to the Supreme Court verdict, Union Law minister Sadananda Gowda said, “Surprised at the verdict of the Supreme Court. Will of the people had been brought to the court. We will consult senior colleagues and the Prime Minister and take a decision.”
“NJAC was completely supported by Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha; it had 100 per cent support of the people,” Mr. Gowda further added speaking to the press in Bengaluru.
Along with this, the Supreme Court constitutional bench also rejected the Centre’s plea of referring the matter to the larger bench. Arguing earlier before the court, the Central government had sought for the constitution of 11 judge bench citing the precedence of Justice JS Verma-led 9 bench which had validated the Collegium system of selecting and elevating the judges at the Supreme Court and in the High Courts.
The Supreme Court, however, admitted that there is scope and perhaps a requirement to improve the existing collegium system of appointment of judges. It has now fixed November 3 to hold further hearing on the issue.
As per the NJAC, judges were to be elevated and appointed by the 6-member committee consisting of the Chief Justice of India, two immediate senior-most apex court judges, the two ‘eminent’ persons and the Law Minister. Those two ‘eminent’ persons would in turn have been nominated by the committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha or where there is no such Leader of Opposition, then the leader of single largest Opposition party.
Even though the legislation came into effect on 13th April this year after the BJP-led Central government notified the setting up of NJAC, no new elevation of appointment was made as the matter was pending before the court.
The law was challenged soon after it was passed by the Parliament in August last year. A Supreme Court advocates’ group among other petitioners had moved the top court contending that the new system demolished the independence of the judiciary by giving the government a big role in the selection of judges.
National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act – the 124th amendment to the Constitution – had received an assent by President Pranab Mukherjee last year December.
(With inputs from the PTI)