The Supreme Court on Tuesday held that the administrative function of a Chief Justice in assigning cases to benches does not constitute conflict of interest. The court held that a First Information Report could not be filed against a judge without the Chief Justice being consulted, and if the FIR involved the Chief Justice, the President’s concurrence would be necessary.

These assertions were made by a three-judge bench as it disposed of a petition filed by advocate Kamini Jaiswal, who sought an independent, court-monitored inquiry under a former Chief Justice of India into an alleged medical colleges scam unearthed by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In an FIR on September 19, the CBI had named former Odisha High Court judge IM Quddusi, claiming that attempts had been made to manipulate Supreme Court proceedings to obtain permissions in favour of a medical college run by a Lucknow-based organisation called the Prasad Education Trust. The court commented on the question of conflict of interest raised by the petitioner, who wanted Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra to neither sit on the bench deciding the matter or take up the task of assigning the matter.

The judgement said:

“This Court has also laid down in Dr. D C Saxena (supra) that it was the duty of the Chief Justice to assign judicial work to brother Judges. By doing so, he did not become a Judge in his own cause. It is contempt to imply that the Chief Justice would assign it to a Bench which would not pass an order adverse to him. It is also contempt to imply that the Judges would be so amenable to comply that the Bench which heard the second writ petition could not have heard it. This Court has laid down these allegations aimed at bringing the administration of justice in disrepute. 

Asserting that there was no conflict of interest in such matters where allegations of manipulation are made, the court said it was the duty of the judge to punish those trying to influence by invoking contempt. On this, the court stated:

“There is no conflict of interest in such a matter. In case Judge is hearing a matter and if he comes to know that any party is unscrupulously trying to influence the decision-making or indulging in malpractices, it is incumbent upon the Judge to take cognizance of such a matter under Contempt of Courts Act and to deal with and punish such person in accordance with law as that is not the conflict of interest but the purpose for which the entire system exists. Such things cannot be ignored and recusal of a Judge cannot be asked on the ground of conflict of interest, it would be the saddest day for the judicial system of this country to ignore such aspects on the unfounded allegations and materials.” 

On the current case, where it was alleged that since the charges in the FIR involve proceedings settled by a bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar, who was part of the three-judge bench that gave the Tuesday order, the judges should not handle the matter, the judgement said an FIR cannot be filed against a judge without consultation with the Chief Justice. If the matter involved the Chief Justice, the President’s concurrence was necessary. The bench, tracing the matter that involved the Lucknow trust, said:

“As is apparent from the aforesaid narration of facts, there was no favourable order granted by this Court in favour of the medical college for the current academic session 2017-18, rather its inspection for considering confirmation of letter of permission for the next year 2018-19 had been ordered. The decision will be in the hands of the MCI. After decision has been rendered on 18.9.2017 by this Court, an FIR has been lodged and it appears that money was yet to be exchanged. The FIR dated 19.9.2017 reflects that Mr. B.P. Yadav, Justice Quddusi, Ms. Bhawana Pandey, and Mr. Sudhir Giri were likely to meet Mr. Biswanath Agarwala for getting favourable order at Delhi shortly; whereas this Court has already decided the mater on 18.9.2017. Thus it is a far fetched and too tenuous to even assume or allege that the matter was pending in this Court for which any bribe was to be delivered to anyone.” 

On the petitioner’s contention that an order passed on Thursday by a two-judge bench led by Justice J Chelameswar, assigning the matter to a Constitution bench consisting of five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, cannot be set aside by forming a larger bench as Article 142 orders, which are passed using special powers, were binding on other Chief Justice as well, the court said the matter did not involve the said Article at all. “As a matter of fact, there is no question of applicability of Article 144 or 142 in this case,” the court added.

The bench also came down heavily on the petitioner and said the petition was a clear case of “forum hunting” as it sought to get the matter heard by a specific bench led by Justice Chelameswar. This, the court said, amounted to contempt. It has bemoaned the attempts to drag the Chief Justice into the scam and said the petition, which was worded identically as the one moved by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, was scandalous and brought down the image of the court. However, it said it would not institute contempt proceedings against the petitioners.