As one of the key pillars of democracy, the Indian judiciary enjoys unflinching public faith. It is rooted in rich traditions of impartiality, fairness and supporting the cause of the commonman. The Supreme Court’s recent announcement to make public all the decisions of its collegium on appointments and transfers of judges is a step in the right direction. It promotes the cause of transparency at a time when the collegium system has come in for criticism for being incestuous, arbitrary and opaque. The details of elevation of judges to the Supreme Court and high courts will now be uploaded on the apex court’s website for public scrutiny. This significant decision demonstrates judiciary’s readiness for self-reform. It is also a victory for those advocating transparency in the functioning of the collegium and judicial appointments. A greater transparency in the system will ensure that the best candidates apply for judicial positions. The collegium’s moment of self-correction came on the heels of the resignation of Justice Jayant Patel of the Karnataka High Court following his transfer to the Allahabad High Court which cost him the chance to become chief justice in the southern State. The transfer triggered protests by lawyers in Karnataka, Gujarat and Delhi amid allegations that the judge was deliberately sidelined. Like Patel, there were many judges in the past who were made to feel slighted by the arbitrary and often secretive decisions of the collegium. It is heartening that Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra has initiated a bold reform to correct the situation and make the system transparent.
There has been a prolonged standoff between the government and the judiciary over the issue of appointment of judges. This friction appeared to turn into a turf war after the Supreme Court struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission as unconstitutional in 2015. The Commission was proposed as a replacement for the five-member collegium. The inclusion of the Law Minister and two ‘eminent persons’, who would be nominated by the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha to the proposed Commission had become a bone of contention. Though the idea was part of broader judicial reforms to make appointments to the higher judiciary more transparent, the Supreme Court saw it as an attempt to encroach its domain. However, there is a valid ground for demystifying the functioning of the collegium system. Its decisions have always been closely-guarded secrets and beyond public scrutiny and the purview of the Right to Information Act. Now, the apex court has taken a significant step to address government’s concerns. The collegium’s decision to formulate norms for judicial appointments to cut down arbitrariness is a demonstration of this resolve.