Centre, SC spar over NE HC judges' vacancies

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In yet another showdown between the judiciary and the executive, the Centre and the Supreme Court on Friday crossed swords over the issue of appointment of judges in the higher judiciary.

The top court's remarks assume significance as the Centre, after nearly three months of Collegium's recommendation, returned for reconsideration the file of Uttarakhand high court Chief Justice K.M. Joseph for elevation as an apex court judge. "And the government is being told that we are tardy in filling up vacancies", he said.

"Tell us why is there a delay in processing recommendations by the collegium and making appointments", the court said, observing that the situation in the high courts in Northeast is critical - Meghalaya and Tripura High Courts have only two judges while Manipur only one.

This prompted the bench to ask the Attorney General if he had the data on the pending recommendations of the Collegium for appointments to High Courts.

The exchange of words between the bench and government's top law officer took place when the court took up a transfer petition filed by a resident of Manipur.

Justice Agrawala was recommended as chief justice of the Meghalaya High Court, and Justice Kumari as chief justice of the Manipur HC. He said the orders would be issued "shortly".

The Memorandum of Procedure (MoP), which guides appointments in the higher judiciary, allows the elevation of a puisne judge as chief justice of his/her own high court if he/she has one year or less left before retirement.

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The top court's remarks assume significance as the Centre, after nearly three months of Collegium's recommendation, returned for reconsideration the file of Uttarakhand High Court Chief Justice K M Joseph for elevation as an apex court judge.

In this resolution, the Collegium had recommended that Justice Serto be appointed as a permanent judge of the Manipur High Court and would continue to function in Gauhati High Court. Since the Manipur high court is short of judges, the top court widened the ambit of the case and started to look at the shortage of judges.

In the case of two other judges - Justice Rastogi, originally from the Rajasthan HC, who was recommended for appointment as chief justice of the Tripura HC, and Justice Maheshwari, the chief justice of the Meghalaya HC, who was to be transferred to the Karnataka HC - the Centre issued the warrants on 6 February. KK Venugopal at first said he would have to find out the exact position.

In the course of hearing of a plea on April 19, a bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman said: "A strike is not an answer. strikes can't be linked to that". More importantly, acceding to this would mean that in the future, the government could use the reconsideration route to effectively decide who will become Chief Justice of India.

Venugopal said a decision on these appointments would be made soon.

The bench concluded by asking the Attorney General to file an affidavit within 10 days regarding the vacancies in high courts of Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura.

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