By Vritika Mathur
Justice CS Karnan was released on 20th December 2017 following the completion of a six-month jail term handed to him in May by the Supreme Court. This was in response to contempt by the judge, making him the first Indian High Court Judge being sentenced to prison for the same.
Who is Justice CS Karnan?
Justice Karnan was born in a small village in Tamil Nadu in 1955. He completed his law degree from Madras Law College in 1983. With an 8-year career as a High Court Judge, Justice CS Karnan drew a lot of traction for being the first judge sent to prison. Prior to transfer, he held office in the Madras High Court from 2009 to 2016 after which he was shifted to the Kolkata High Court from 2016 to 2017.
One of his most controversial judgements was in 2013 where he stated, “If a bachelor aged 21 years or above and a spinster aged 18 years or above had pre-marital sex with the intention to marry and subsequent to this, the man deserts the woman, the victim, the woman can approach a civil forum for remedy after producing necessary substantial evidence to grant her social status as wife. This remedy is not only for the purpose of giving relief to the victim woman but also to maintain the cultural integrity of India.” This caused widespread anger and outrage on social and other media.
How was he elected?
Under the Constitution, any lawyer having practiced for 15 years is eligible to be appointed as a Judge. The President of India appoints every judge of a High Court after consultation with the Chief Justice of India as well as the Governor of the State according to Article 217 of the Indian Constitution. In case of appointment of a Judge other than the Chief Justice of the High Court, he/she too is consulted. The Judge elected then holds office until he attains the age of 62 provided that he/she doesn’t resign or isn’t impeached.
Justice Karnan was first appointed as a Judge with 25 years of experience in the Madras High Court in 2009 by the then Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan. This was based on the recommendation of the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, AK Ganguly.
The code of conduct
The code of conduct practiced in courts expects the Judges to be honest, equal and unbiased. They are also expected to practice detachment from the case as well as refrain from acting in manners that are deemed to pull down the esteem in which the offices or its officials are held. Inability to follow the code would result in contempt of court.
Contempt of court refers to an offence of being disobedient towards the court or its officials. According to the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971, “contempt of court” entails either civil contempt or criminal contempt. Civil contempt refers to when an individual wilfully disobeys an order made by the court. Whereas, criminal contempt refers to when an individual exhibits disrespect towards any legal authority. Under the Act, the power to punish lies with both, the High Court as well as the Supreme Court. This punishment is either a maximum of 6 months in jail or a fine of ?2000 or both.
The process of impeachment of a judge can be initiated when there is proof of misbehaviour. With Justice Karnan and his long list of controversies, the Court was free of having to shoulder any burden of looking for evidence.
What led to his imprisonment?
In 2011, Justice Karnan called a press conference in Chennai causing a huge controversy. In this conference, he accused his fellow colleagues in the Madras High Court of caste discrimination since he belonged to a Dalit family. He further alleged that a fellow judge touched him with his foot deliberately at a fellow judge’s daughter’s wedding. He was, however, charged with contempt of court because without any substantial proof, it is considered disrespectful towards the Court and its judges.
In 2014, a two-judge bench was hearing a PIL on the selection of judges when Justice Karnan stormed into the courtroom and demanded to be included as a party in the proceedings. He launched into an outburst against the bias involved in the appointment of judges. In another instance, the Judge also accused Supreme Court Judge, Justice AK Ganguly of making unwanted sexual advances towards a law graduate. With a volley of accusations hurled left and right towards them, 20 judges sent a letter to the Chief Justice of India requesting the transfer of Justice Karnan from the Madras HC due to his difficult nature.
In February 2016, the collegium led by T.S. Thakur recommended the transfer of HC Judges including CS Karnan. In addition to this, the Supreme Court asked the Madras Court to stop allotting work to Karnan. He retaliated by staying the order. However, after a lot of back and forth, the SC finally threatened to initiate a contempt case against the Judge in case of non-compliance. After a closed-door meeting with the then Chief Justice Thakur, Karnan formally apologised and blamed his actions on a “loss of mental balance due to mental frustrations”.
More recently, in 2017, Justice Karnan released a list naming 20 sitting as well as retired Supreme Court and High Court judges as being corrupt. He sent this list to the Prime Minister calling it an ‘initial list’. A 7-judge bench of the SC asked Karnan to appear before it in February to answer the charges of contempt made against him after the release of this list.
Non-compliance with orders eventually leading to his arrest
Is there any truth to the accusations?
A fact-finding committee after much investigation found a ring of truth in the accusation against Justice AK Ganguly of unwelcome sexual behaviour. But the Judge did not face any repercussions due to the fact that he had retired and thus there were no proceedings. However, this brings to light the authenticity of the accusation made by Justice Karnan and questions the disregard of the others. Is it possible that some of the claims made by Karnan against judges have an inkling of the truth behind them? Or is the popular consensus of the courts true and it is a mental health issue that drives the issues?
One is left wondering whether it is the Judge or the constitutional mechanisms that have actually failed the country.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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