Judicial appointments – the devil will be in the details

NoticeAndStayAdityaVerma_SupremeCourtcolumnThe Judicial Appointments Commission (“JAC”) that has been proposed for the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and the High Courts (“judges”) including the Chief Justice of India does not guarantee better outcomes. The proposal contemplates a more transparent and broad-based process compared to the current “judicial collegium system”. However, it does not make merit the dominant criterion for appointment and so risks making the process subject to elaborate political bargaining.

Role of Parliament: After the 120th Constitution Amendment Bill (“the Amendment”) is enacted and brought in force, the President will appoint judges on the recommendation of the JAC. According to the Amendment, the Parliament can make law to provide for the composition, functions, and procedure of the JAC, as well as the manner of selection of persons for their appointment as judges. As a consequence, Parliament will also enact and bring in force the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, 2013 (“the JAC Bill”).

Can the new scheme of judicial appointments upset the balance?
Can the new scheme of judicial appointments upset the balance?

Generally speaking, an amendment to the provisions of the Constitution relating to the appointment of judges requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament, as well as ratification by at least one-half of the legislatures of the States. An ordinary law requires only an ordinary majority in Parliament.

Therefore, after the Amendment and after the JAC Bill becomes the JAC Act, Parliament will only require an ordinary majority to repeal or amend the new law. Theoretically, if a single party were to achieve an absolute majority in Parliament, it could amend the composition of the JAC to suit its own ends, even to the extent of excluding the judiciary from the process completely.

Composition of the JAC: According to the JAC Bill, the JAC will be composed of six persons:

– The Chief Justice of India (the CJI) as Chairperson;

– Two other judges of the Supreme Court next to the CJI in seniority;

– The Union Minister in charge of Law and Justice; and

– Two eminent persons (to be appointed by the “collegium” consisting of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha).

Views of members of the Bar are not explicitly a part of the appointment process, though the two “eminent persons” on the JAC may well turn out to be legal professionals. For the appointment of judges to the High Courts, the views of the respective Governor, Chief Minister, and Chief Justice of that High Court will also be elicited.

Regulations of the JAC: Crucially, Parliament will delegate to the JAC the power to make regulations specifying its own procedure for inviting recommendations, short-listing candidates, and discharging its functions. These regulations must be laid before Parliament, which will have the power to modify or annul them.

While the Amendment and the JAC Bill reveal who will be responsible for appointing judges and that there will be a procedure specified for appointment, they do not tell us what the procedure will be. That will be specified in the regulations.

Who can be a judge?

According to the JAC Bill, the JAC will have a duty to ensure that the person recommended by it is of “ability, integrity and standing in the legal profession”. This is in addition to the constitutional requirements of prior judicial or advocacy experience that currently apply (ignoring the “distinguished jurists” provision for the moment).

In a pure merit-based system, relevant factors would only be those that have regard to a person’s suitability for judgeship. Judges’ appointments would not be means to any other ends. While it is significant that the JAC Bill provides a merit-based statutory standard for the appointment of judges, an equally relevant question arises about those who may not be appointed despite fulfilling that standard. Unless the regulations of the JAC go on to specify that “ability, integrity and standing in the legal profession” (or a more sophisticated merit-based standard consistent with it) will be the only or dominant criterion, it appears that it would be open to the JAC to consider other factors in appointing judges, provided that the statutory standard is satisfied. (Compare this with a relatively open merit-based selection process for an appointment to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom).

The challenge faced the JAC: The history of appointment of judges in India is marked by a tussle for control between the executive and the judiciary. Many perceive the JAC to be another salvo in this exchange. This perception can be changed if the JAC will emphasise and give primacy to merit-based factors in its regulations and functioning. Whether it is the collegium system or the JAC, the standards on the basis of which judges are appointed should be more important than the persons who appoint them, bearing in mind that those who appoint must have the necessary information and tools to make that qualitative assessment.

As with the collegium, the success of the JAC, assessed from the perspective of judicial independence and impartiality, will depend on how it will frame its own regulations for inviting recommendations and short-listing candidates, and which factors it will consider while discharging its functions. Without stating standards for selection, there is no inherent reason why influence over appointments of judges by one institution would be preferable over the other.


Read more about the constitutional ping pong that is the history of the debate on judicial appointments in India here.

(Aditya Verma practices as an Advocate at the Supreme Court of India. He is an alumnus of NLSIU, Bangalore, and is admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales.)



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