On April 3, the "collegium" of the five most senior judges of the Supreme Court asked Karnataka Chief Justice P.D. Dinakaran to go on leave. The decision seems obvious, given that Justice Dinakaran — facing corruption allegations, his SC elevation on hold, and impeachment proceedings in Parliament — has not attended the Karnataka High Court ever since the controversy first erupted. But in institutions as opaque as our higher judiciary, little is obvious. To add to the confusion is another trifling matter: it is unclear whether Chief Justice Dinakaran is obliged to listen to the collegium and step down. Apart from impeachment, the only sword which the collegium seems to be able to dangle above high court judges is transfer, not leave.
Whether or not Justice Dinakaran agrees to the collegium's request, uncertainty on even this minor point highlights the need for transparent procedures to anoint and discipline judges. In fact, every twist and turn in the Dinakaran issue has exposed the lack of clear-cut rules. When allegations first surfaced against the judge, there was no obvious way for the collegium to go about it, to listen to the complainants, to investigate complaints, and to give Justice Dinakaran a hearing. The entire Dinakaran saga — from his proposed elevation to the Supreme Court, keeping that elevation on hold, the starting of impeachment proceedings, and now asking him to go on leave — speaks of an ad hoc, ill-thought-out way to appoint their lordships, and hold them accountable.
It is hoped that the Judges (Standards and Accountability) Bill provides some corrective, envisaging a gradation of responses to supplement the all-or-nothing impeachment procedure. That still leaves appointments, an issue so sensitive that it requires consensus between the higher judiciary and our political class. Law Minister Veerappa Moily's statement that the collegium has at times accepted his veto on certain appointments, speaks of a dual filter in vetting senior judges. But that filter must not be discretionary. Judicial appointments must be transparent and cross-institutional, while preserving the independence of the world's most powerful court. It is hoped that the continuing embarrassment over the Dinakaran issue spurs the collegium and Parliament to act in concert to end the impasse.