In Row Over Judges Appointments, Law Minister's New Message For Supreme Court

Law Minister Kiren Rijiju was responding to a question in parliament on the large number of pending cases when he doubled down on his criticism of the collegium system of appointing judges

Kiren Rijiju highlighted the government has a very limited role in the appointment of judges

New Delhi:

In a war of words with the Supreme Court, Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju today once again flagged concerns over the government's "limited role" in appointing judges and stressed that it is at odds with the spirit of the Constitution. His latest message came from parliament.

Mr Rijiju was responding to a question in Rajya Sabha on the large number of pending cases when he doubled down on his criticism of the system of judges being appointed by a collegium or panel of senior most Supreme Court judges.

He said it was worrying that more than five crore cases were pending across the country. The basic reason, said the minister, was judges' vacancies.

"The government took many steps to reduce the pendency of cases, but the government has a very limited role in filling vacancies of judges. The collegium chooses names, and apart from that, the government has no right to appoint judges," Mr Rijiju said.

He said the government had often conveyed to the Chief Justice of India and High Court Chief Justices to "send names (of judges) that reflect quality and India's diversity and give proper representation to women".

But the current system did not reflect the sentiment of parliament or the people, he remarked, appearing to imply that the government didn't approve of the collegium's choices.

"I don't want to say much as it may seem like the government interfering in the judiciary. But the spirit of the Constitution says it is the government's right to appoint judges. It changed after 1993," he said.

Mr Rijiju also referred to the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act, enacted in 2014 to give the government a role in judges' appointments, which was scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2015.

"Unless the procedure of appointment of judges changes, the issue of high judicial vacancies will keep cropping up," said the Law Minister.

Mr Rijiju has laboured this point repeatedly over the past few weeks, claiming that the collegium is not what the people of India want.

In 2014, the BJP-led government tried to change the system with the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), which would have assigned a major role to the government in judicial appointments. But the Supreme Court struck down the law months later.

Earlier this month, after Mr Rijiju raised the subject at an event, the Supreme Court warned against "derailing the collegium system".

Days later, the court reacted sharply to the speech of Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar in Rajya Sabha referring to judges' appointments and appearing to support a greater say for the government. "Speeches made by the high constitutional functionaries in public, making comments on the Supreme Court Collegium, are not very well taken. You have to advise them," said the court.

The Collegium system is the "law of the land" which should be "followed to the teeth", the Supreme Court said. Just because some sections of the society express a view against the Collegium system, it will not cease to be the law of the land, the judges said.

Many central ministers - current and former - have argued that the government should have a role in selection of judges, which has been the domain of the Supreme Court Collegium since 1993.