A Peep into Justice Karnan Contempt Saga

By sentencing a sitting judge of the Calcutta High court for the offence of its contempt, the Indian judiciary has proved its commendable commitment towards this rule of law. Justice Karnan's actions and orders were tolerated for a long time and then a bench of 7 judges with CJI ruled against him and did not allow his stay on his own transfer. Read along to know more!

Thomas Fuller once very wisely remarked ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you’ and by sentencing a sitting judge of the Calcutta High court for the offence of its contempt, the Indian judiciary has proved its commendable commitment towards this rule of law. There is absolutely no doubt that the actions of Justice C.S. Karnan were contemptuous, however, it has given rise to a conflicted opinion regarding the constitutionality of the sentence. There is an escalating controversy regarding the order’s inconsistency with the Constitution of the country, the indiscriminate exercise of Suo Moto power of the court and the unwarranted media gag. Further, many believe that it is the composition of a bench comprising of the seven senior-most judges of the supreme court to hear the contempt case, prioritizing this issue over the case that involved adjudication of the right to privacy in the Adhaar cases, which is in fact considered by many as a substantial interference with the due course of justice.

Every subject of land, however powerful he may be, must abide by the orders of the judiciary and protect its dignity. Any person who violates the same is guilty of contempt of court. The Constitution of the country recognizes civil contempt which refers to willful disobedience of an order of the court and criminal contempt which implies that any act by a person that lowers or scandalizes the authority of court, or prejudices or interferes with the due course of judicial proceedings or obstructs administration of justice will be guilty of contempt. In the contempt case involving Justice Karnan, there are three main statutes one must be aware of for a better understanding of the case- Articles 19(2), 129, 142 of the Constitution, the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, and the Rules to regulate proceedings for contempt of the Supreme Court,1975.

On May 9, 2017, the Supreme Court found the conduct of Justice Karnan unbecoming of a judge due to the accusations, statements, and orders made by him against as many as 20 serving judges of both high court and supreme court. The court in response held him guilty of Contempt of Court and sentenced him to the highest punishment prescribed by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 -simple imprisonment for 6 months. Along with this the court also passed a final order stripping him of all his administrative as well as judicial duties.

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Topics Covered in this article

The Background 

Justice Karnan was appointed as a judge of the Madras High court in the year 2009 and was to retire from office on June 12, 2017. In the year 2011, Justice Karnan through his letter addressed to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) alleged that he was being subject to caste-based harassment by his colleagues at the court. This letter was then forwarded to the then CJI, Justice Kapadia. This was followed by an incident in 2014 when he disrupted a hearing of a PIL regarding a matter related to the appointment of judges before a special bench and declared the process of selection as unfair. The then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court wrote to the CJI-P.Sathasivam complaining about the unbecoming conduct of Justice Karnan and how it not only undermines the dignity of the Chief Justice but also the judicial system. He along with 20 serving judges of the court requested that Justice Karnan is transferred from Madras High Court. In the year 2015, Chief Justice of Madras High Court constituted a committee to interview candidates for the recruitment of civil judges. Justice Karnan reverted by initiating a Suo Moto writ proceeding staying the order of the Chief Justice restraining Public Service Commission from holding interviews and also ordered the CBI to inquire into the educational qualifications of other member judges. This order was stayed by the division bench of High Court the next day and a few days later Justice Karnan held his ground and reiterated his previous order and also threatened the Chief Justice that he would initiate contempt proceedings against him for interfering in the matters falling within his jurisdiction. This matter was then presented before the Supreme Court who was requested to stay the order passed by Justice Karnan and consequentially the order has stayed. However, Justice Karnan remained unaffected by this and accused a colleague of sexually assaulting an intern in the premises of the court.

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The Contempt Saga

In the year 2016, the Supreme Court passed an order whereby it transferred Justice Karnan to Calcutta High Court. Unabashed, Justice Karnan stayed his transfer order and asked the CJI to file a reply stating reasons for issuing the transfer order. The Supreme Court then stepped in and quashed the order passed Justice Karnan and also restrained the Madras High Court from assigning any administrative or judicial work to him. The Court also ordered a blanket stay on all the orders passed by him after the above order of the court. Justice Karnan attributed his actions to a loss of mental balance caused due to various mental frustrations which were a result of caste-based discrimination meted out to him at the Court and addressed an apology letter to the then CJI. It was in 2017 that the Supreme Court had reached its threshold for tolerance as Justice Karnan did not learn from his many mistakes and wrote to the Hon’ble Prime Minister of the country wherein he made various allegations regarding corruption and recovery of illegal money post demonetization against 20 judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court.

This resulted in the commencement of suo moto contempt proceedings against the Judge and the composition of a seven-judge bench by the CJI comprising of the senior-most judges of the Supreme Court. Show cause notice was also issued to Justice Karnan and an interim order stripping him of all his administrative and judicial duties was also passed. Even this did not prevent the judge from making accusatory statements against the Chief Justice of India led bench alleging that they should be held guilty of upper caste bias against him under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Instead of attending the proceedings before the Court, he asked for compensation amounting to INR 14 Crores for disturbing his mental wellbeing and disrupting his normal life. In order to ensure his presence in the next hearing, the court had no option but to issue a non-bailable warrant against him. This warranted his presence in the Court but during the proceeding, he expressly told the court that he would not attend the next hearing even if this led to his arrest. The last nail in the coffin was when he passed an order against the seven-judge bench purporting that they had insulted him in an open court and asking them to appear before him at his ‘residential court’. He even issued non-bailable warrants against them and ordered the CBI to investigate into the allegations levied. The Air Control Authority was directed to restrain the seven judges from leaving the country and all bounds were broken when he convicted the judges holding them guilty under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and sentenced them to imprisonment for a term of 5 years. Finally, the Supreme Court ordered that no authority is required to take cognizance of any orders passed by him and was found guilty of contempt of court sentencing him to 6 months simple imprisonment and forbidding the media from publishing any statements made by him until the final order which is to follow once the court reopens.

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ManasaVenkataraman, Who is in contempt of justice, Karnan or the court, THE HINDU (JULY 20, 2017), http://www.thehindu.com/thread/politics-and-policy/who-is-in-contempt-of-justice-karnan-or-the-court/article18456851.ece

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SmitaChakraburtty, The Curious Case of Justice Karnan, ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, (July 20, 2017), http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/18/web-exclusives/curious-case-justice-karnan.html

NamitSaxena, A Peep into Justice Karnan’s Contempt Saga-I, LIVE LAW, (July 24, 2017), http://www.livelaw.in/peep-justice-karnans-contempt-saga/

The wire analysis,The Supreme Court Order Sentencing Justice Karnan to Six Months’ Imprisonment Sets A Wrong Precedent, THE WIRE, (July 24, 2017),  https://thewire.in/134265/supreme-court-karnan-contempt-wrong/

Usha Ramanathan, Justice Karnan case: A bigger problem than his conduct is how the court has dealt with the issue, SCROLL.IN, (July 25, 2017),  https://scroll.in/article/837364/justice-karnan-case-supreme-courts-order-reeks-of-bad-law-and-power-grab