The government on Thursday issued a notification regarding rules for appointments to 12 tribunals, or quasi-judicial bodies, in various fields, including the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal.
This comes a day after an irritated Supreme Court reprimanded the government for its delay in filling posts in tribunals; a bench led by Chief Justice NV Ramana told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta "return with appointment letters (in two weeks)... or (if appointments are not made) cite the reason".
"We are a democratic country... follow the rule of law," the Chief Justice reminded the government.
In a charged hearing the court singled out delayed appointments to the NCLT, or National Company Law Tribunal, and criticised the government for "cherry picking" from a shortlist of 22 names.
The Chief Justice - part of the selection committee - said 544 people had been interviewed for the shortlist, but "... only some were appointed... rest went to (a) wait list," he observed.
The Solicitor General's reply - that "the government is entitled to not follow certain recommendations" - did not go down well; Justice L Nageswara Rao, part of the three-judge bench, shot back: "What (then) is the sanctity of the selection committee (headed by top court judges)?"
Meanwhile, the government has also reversed its decision to retire Justice Ashok Iqbal Singh Cheema as Chairperson of the NCLAT. This was after the court warned the government that it would stay the contentious Tribunal Reforms Act that is at the centre of a tug-of-war between the two.
Justice Cheema, a former judge of the Bombay High Court, was removed by the government on September 11 - ten days before his term was to end, and with five judgments still pending.
He had moved the Supreme Court against that decision.
The court was told he could continue as Chairperson "but only on paper" as an "awkward" situation had developed - an alternative had been appointed. The court, however, refused to accept this, saying, "You (the government) are responsible for this awkward situation..."
The issue of appointments and rules of appointments to tribunals has been debated in the top court in the past few days, with the court last week warning the government "you are testing our patience".
"... we feel the government has no respect for this court," the court said, referring to a "pattern"; "... we strike down one Act and a new one comes..." Justice DY Chandrachud said, as another bench (also led by the Chief Justice) gave the government a week to make the appointments.
"We are upset... but we don't want confrontation with the government," the Chief Justice said at that hearing, to which the Solicitor General replied: "Government doesn't want confrontation either".
The court then told the Solicitor General there were, then, four possible options.
"One - staying the Tribunal Reforms Act... and going ahead with appointments. Second - we close down tribunals. Third - we make appointments for tribunal positions ourselves... Other option is we initiate contempt proceedings against you (the government)," Chief Justice Ramana warned.
The tribunal hearings are on the basis of a petition filed by Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh, asking that provisions of the Tribunal Reforms Act of 2021 - which revives an ordinance struck down by the Supreme Court - be declared unconstitutional.
Mr Ramesh has said the law, which abolishes nine key tribunals, "raises a serious threat to judicial independence by giving the government sweeping powers regarding... key tribunals."