Judicial Officer’s Integrity Must Be Of A Higher Order And Even A Single Aberration Is Not Permitted: Supreme Court

 

In a latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment titled Arun Kumar Gupta Vs State of Jharkhand & Anr in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 190 of 2018 with Writ Petition (Civil) No. 391 of 2018, a two Judge Bench of the Apex Court comprising of Justice L Nageswara Rao and Justice Deepak Gupta have very rightly maintained while dismissing the writ petitions filed by judicial officers of Jharkhand who were compulsorily retired that judicial officer’s integrity must be of a higher order and even a single aberration is not permitted. The law pertaining to the vital subject of compulsory retirement of judicial officers have thus been summed up in this noteworthy judgment. All judicial officers must essentially go through this all-important verdict as it directly concerns them and lays down strict parameters pertaining to their integrity which is non-negotiable! It would be instructive for even others to go through it to understand the high bench mark laid down for judicial officers by the Apex Court!

To start with, this notable judgment authored by Justice Deepak Gupta for himself and Justice L Nageswara Rao of the Apex Court first and foremost sets the ball rolling by observing in para 1 that, “These writ petitions have been filed by two erstwhile judicial officers who were members of the judicial service in the State of Jharkhand and are directed against the orders whereby they have been compulsorily retired. In respect of the two writ petitions which are the subject matter of this judgment, this Court passed the following order on 06.09.2018:

“Writ Petition Nos. 190/2018 and 391/2018 shall remain pending. The High Court of Jharkhand may like to reconsider the matter in the light of the entirety of the materials that have been placed before us at the hearing by the Registrar General of the Jharkhand High Court and also by the learned counsel for the High Court.

We make it clear that the High Court is free to decide the matter as may be considered appropriate and that we have expressed no opinion on merits at this stage. The High Court of Jharkhand would be free to support its conclusions in terms of the present order with adequate reasons.

The decision of the High Court in accordance with this order be laid before us at the end of two months from today.

List the matters after two months.”

Pursuant to the aforesaid order, the matters were placed before the Screening Committee of the High Court of Jharkhand and the Screening Committee on 11.10.2018 again found sufficient reasons and approved the earlier action taken to compulsorily retire these officers. The resolution of the Screening Committee was placed before the Standing Committee of the Jharkhand High Court, which approved the resolution of the screening committee on 25.10.2018.”

As it turns out, the Bench then observes in para 2 that, “Challenge is laid in both these writ petitions to the orders of compulsory retirement and especially to the reasons assigned or the material ignored by the Screening Committee. The orders of compulsory retirement have been passed in terms of the Rule 74(b)(ii) of the Jharkhand Service Code, 2001 which reads as follows:

“(ii) The appointing authority concerned may after giving a Government servant at least three month’s previous notice in writing, or an equal amount to three month’s pay and allowance in lieu of such notice, require him in public interest to retire from the service on the date on which such a Government servant completes thirty years of qualifying service or attains fifty years of age or on any date thereafter to be specified in the notice.”

The aforesaid Rule is pari material to Rule 56(j) of the Fundamental Rules.”

While seeking to reveal the main contention of the petitioner, the Bench then points out in para 3 that, “The main contentions raised on behalf of the petitioners are that their retirement is not in the public interest; their entire service record especially the contemporaneous record has not been taken into consideration and also that the petitioners have been granted various promotions which would have the effect of washing off their previous adverse entries, if any.”

Importantly, the Bench then makes it clear in para 4 that, “While deciding the present case we are conscious of the fact that we are dealing with the cases of judicial officers. The standard of integrity and probity expected from judicial officers is much higher than that expected from other officers. Keeping these factors in mind we shall first discuss the law on the subject and then take up these two cases on merits.”

For the sake of brevity, the essence of what is contained in para 7 is this: “In Chandra Singh v. State of Rajasthan (2003) 6 SCC 545, though this Court came to the conclusion that the compulsory retirement awarded to the applicant was not in consonance with the law, it did not give relief to the petitioner on the ground that even under Article 235 of the Constitution of India, the High Court can assess the performance of any judicial officer at any time with a view to discipline the black sheep or weed out the dead wood. This Court held that this constitutional power of the High Court is not circumscribed by any rule.” The key point of para 47 of this Chandra Singh ruling dealing with higher judicial officers is this: “The nature of judicial service is such that it cannot afford to suffer continuance in service of persons of doubtful integrity or who have lost their utility.”

On a different note, the key point that is then mentioned in para 10 is that, “In Rajendra Singh Verma v. Lt. Governor (NCT of Delhi) (2011) 10 SCC 1, this Court was dealing with the compulsory retirement of a judicial officer from the Delhi Higher Judicial Service. It was held that if the authority bona fide forms an opinion that the integrity of a particular officer is doubtful and it is in public interest to compulsorily retire such judicial officer, judicial review of such order should be made with great care and circumspection. It was specifically observed that when an order of compulsory retirement is passed, the authority concerned has to take into consideration the whole service record of the concerned officer which could include non-communicated adverse remarks also.”

To say the least, the crux of para 11 dealing with the famous ruling RC Chandel v High Court of M.P. (2012) 8 SCC 58 is stated thus: “The Court took note of the fact that the appellant before he had been promoted and confirmed as District Judge and was also given selection grade and super time scale etc., but it held that those promotions would not wash off the earlier adverse entries which shall remain on record.”

More significantly, it is then entailed in para 16 that, “The law on the subject of compulsory retirement, especially in the case of judicial officers may be summarised as follows:

(i)    An order directing compulsory retirement of a judicial officer is not punitive in nature;

(ii)   An order directing compulsory retirement of a judicial officer has no civil consequences;

(iii)    While considering the case of a judicial officer for compulsory retirement the entire record of the judicial officer should be taken into consideration, though the latter and more contemporaneous record must be given more weightage;

(iv) Subsequent promotions do not mean that earlier adverse record cannot be looked into while deciding whether a judicial officer should be compulsorily retired;

(v)  The ‘washed off’ theory does not apply in case of judicial officers specially in respect of adverse entries relating to integrity;

(vi) The courts should exercise their power of judicial review with great circumspection and restraint keeping in view the fact that compulsory retirement of a judicial officer is normally directed on the recommendation of a high-powered committee(s) of the High Court.

It is in the light of the aforesaid law that we will now consider the factual aspects of the present case.”

While mentioning about the need to give reasons for its order, the Bench then elucidates in para 17 that, “In view of the fact that the Screening Committee has given detailed reasoning only after the orders of this Court referred to above and in view of the limited scope of judicial review when there are no allegations of mala fide, we would have avoided giving reasons to uphold such an order since it does not amount to punishment and is not penal in nature. However, since the petitioners have insisted that there is a material against them, we have no option but to refer to some of the reasons given by the Screening Committee.”

While elaborating on the case of Mr Arun Kumar Gupta, the Bench then envisages in para 18 that, “As far as Mr. Arun Kumar Gupta is concerned, there are two very serious allegations against him. The first is that when he was working as Deputy Director, Administrative Training Institute at Ranchi, as many as 10 ladies, who were Civil Service Probationers, made allegations that he was using unwarranted and objectionable language during his lectures, citing indecent examples and using words having double meaning, thereby causing embarrassment to the lady officers. We have perused the complaints which are filed with the reply and the common refrain is that the language used by Mr. Gupta during his lectures was highly sexist.”

Furthermore, it is then pointed out in para 19 that, “There is also another allegation that he had physically hurt a washerman by placing a hot iron on the head of the washerman who had allegedly not ironed his clothes properly. It would be pertinent to mention that the Principal District Judge had reported to the High Court that the victim had personally approached him immediately after the occurrence and he (the Principal District Judge) found that the victim had sustained burn injuries and he got the victim treated. It is true that Mr. Arun Kumar Gupta was exonerated by the successor judicial officer before whom the complainant denied having suffered any injury but we may note that this is a preliminary inquiry and the successor Principal District Judge did not even care to examine his predecessor Principal District Judge, who had not only been approached personally by the washerman, but who had himself noted the burn injuries and had got the victim treated. Therefore, we are of the view that the Screening Committee was right that the victim may have been put under some pressure to withdraw his complaint. These occurrences are of the year 2011-2012 and cannot be said to be very old.”

In balance, after considering the allegations against Mr Arun Kumar Gupta, the Bench then holds in para 20 that, “In our view, the aforementioned two instances are sufficient to decide the case against the petitioner. We may also note that Shri Raju Ramchandran, learned senior counsel appearing for the petitioner has urged that the Screening Committee had only taken the entries from 1992-1993 to 2004-2005 and had ignored the entries from 2005-2006 to 2016-2017. As explained by Mr. Sunil Kumar, learned senior counsel appearing for the High Court, all the ACRs were before the Screening Committee but in the order it is only the adverse entries which have been noted. Be that as it may, we are of the view that even if these adverse entries are ignored, the petitioner cannot be granted relief for the reasons aforesaid.”

Having said this, the Bench then while dwelling on the case of Shri Raj Nandan Rai minces no words to say in simple and straight language in para 21 that, “As far as this officer is concerned, we find that his record on many counts is not at all good. His reputation and integrity have been doubted more than once in the years 1996-1997, 1997-1998 and 2004-2005. Some adverse remarks have been conveyed to him. In the year 2015-2016, even his knowledge of law and procedure is found to be average and his relation with the members of the Bar was found not very good. There are also allegations against him of having granted bail for illegal gratification and substance has been found in this allegation in the report of the Judicial Commissioner, Ranchi (who is equivalent to the Principal District Judge). The officer had granted bail by noting in the order that Section 327 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was bailable whereas the offence is non-bailable and an unrecorded warning regarding the integrity of the judicial officer was issued to him in 2012.”

Most significantly, it is then very rightly held most remarkably in para 22 which all judicial officers must always bear in mind that, “As is obvious from the law quoted above, adverse entries with regard to integrity do not lose their sting at any stage. A judicial officer’s integrity must be of a higher order and even a single aberration is not permitted. As far as the present cases are concerned, the matter has been considered by the Screening Committee on two occasions and the recommendations of the Screening Committee have been accepted by the Standing Committee on both occasions. The action taken is not by one officer or Judge, it is a collective decision, first by the Screening Committee and then approved by the Standing Committee.”

Going forward, it is then held in para 23 that, “Senior judges of the High Court who were the members of the Screening Committee and Standing Committee have taken a considered and well-reasoned decision. Unless there are allegations of mala fides or the facts are so glaring that the decision of compulsory retirement is unsupportable this court would not exercise its power of judicial review. In such matters the court on the judicial side must exercise restraint before setting aside the decision of such collective bodies comprising of senior High Court Judges. In our opinion these are not fit cases to interfere with the said decisions.” Finally, it is then held in the last para 24 that, “In view of the above, both the writ petitions are dismissed. Any pending application(s) shall stand(s) disposed of.”

In sum, the Apex Court Bench comprising of Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice L Nageswara Rao have aptly summed up this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment by once again reiterating the raising of the bar for judicial officers which we have already discussed and deliberated upon in detail. At a time when corruption, indiscipline and nepotism are spreading their tentacles in every place deep inside every department, it was most imperative that the Apex Court urgently stepped in to ensure that judiciary is protected always from all such vices and this exactly is what the Apex Court has very rightly sought to do by laying down in no uncertain terms that judicial officer’s integrity must be of a higher order and even a single aberration is not permitted! Very rightly so!

Sanjeev Sirohi