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The Shaky Scales of Fairness in Contempt Cases of Justice Karnan and Prashant Bhushan

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In the recent contempt case against Prashant Bhushan, the way events took shape within and outside the corridors of the Supreme Court was unprecedented. This inevitably reminds us of the contempt case against Justice C.S. Karnan, then a sitting judge of the Calcutta high court. While there were some similarities in the apex court’s approach, certain sections of the Karnan judgment went unnoticed at the time and highlight the difference in approach in the two cases can now be seen.

Let us begin with the similarities, which do the apex court no credit.

At the very initial stage of the contempt proceedings, Justice Karnan addressed a letter to the Registrar General of the Supreme Court on February 10, 2017, requesting that the proceedings begin after the retirement of the then Chief Justice of India, Justice J. S. Khehar, because Justice Karnan had levelled charges of corruption against him (para 18). However, the CJI continued to preside over the bench.

A similar refusal followed Prashant Bhushan’s request that Justice Arun Misra recuse himself from the bench hearing the contempt case.

In both cases, the natural justice principle that no one can be judge in his own cause was ignored. Section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 authorising suo motu contempt proceedings also weakens this principle, as in such proceedings the victim, the complainant and the adjudicator is the Supreme Court itself.

If the principle of nemo judex in sua causa was violated in both Bhushan and Justice Karnan’s cases, the latter had to put up with several other anomalies.

Justice Karnan’s apology ignored

First, in a hearing on March 31, 2017 Justice Karnan handed over a signed statement wherein he clearly stated:

I unconditionally withdraw my complaint dated 23.1.2017 against 20 Hon’ble Judges. … I unconditionally tender an apology before this Court if I committed contempt of Court. I will follow Your Lordship’s advice and guidelines in future in order to maintain the judicial system and its integrity. I will be retiring on 11.6.2017, therefore, I make a deep request to permit me to retire from the Bench with the blessings of all brother and sister Judges of the Calcutta High Court. Hence, I pray Your Lordships to restore my judicial and administrative work and thus render justice and oblige.”

Despite this, the court passed the following order dated March 31 after the hearing:

“… He was repeatedly asked, whether he affirms the contents of the letters, written by him, as are available on the record of the case. He was also asked whether he would like to withdraw the allegations. … He has not responded, in any affirmative manner, one way or the other. We would therefore proceed with the matter only after receipt of his written........

© The Wire

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