On October 6, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy sent a letter to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde in which he made sensational allegations about Justice NV Ramana, the second senior-most judge of the Supreme Court.

For over five months, the Supreme Court did not say anything about the action it was taking with regard to the letter.

On Wednesday, a single-page statement from the court said the letter had been dealt under its in-house procedure and was dismissed after “due consideration”. The contents of the proceedings, the court said, were “strictly confidential” and so were not liable to be made public.

The statement came on a day Justice Bobde recommended Justice Ramana to be the next chief justice of India as per the seniority principle. Justice Ramana will take over on April 24.

This brings to an unceremonious end one of the most dramatic chapters in the court’s history, in which a sitting chief minister of a large state took the unprecedented step of putting on record serious allegations against a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.

The manner in which the court has dealt with the allegations is problematic in several ways, the first of which is the disregard shown to the principle of transparency.

This disregard, however, is becoming a consistent feature of the court, as is evidence from several other instances from the recent past.

Serious allegations

The core of Reddy’s allegation was that Justice Ramana had been influencing the proceedings of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in favour of former chief minister and Telugu Desam Party chief N Chandrababu Naidu. The letter alleged interference with the roster of judges in the High Court and claimed that cases relating to Naidu and his party members ended up with select judges. This invariably resulted in orders against the interests of the government, it said.

The October 6 letter had sought the intervention of Chief Justice Bobde to ensure neutrality in the High Court proceedings.

The letter had also mentioned a criminal case the Andhra government had registered over a land deal in Amaravati in September, in which two daughters of Justice Ramana, former advocate general of the state D Srinivas and several others were accused. It was alleged that there was insider trading in the land purchases in 2014, with the accused allegedly accessing information about the development plans for a proposed new capital at Amaravati before its notification.

Within hours of the FIR being registered, the High Court stayed the investigation and gagged the media from reporting its contents. The gag order was lifted by the Supreme Court in November.

This was the first time a sitting chief minister had taken the extraordinary step of putting in writing allegations against a sitting Supreme Court judge.

Several media reports pointed out at that time that Jagan Reddy had several corruption cases pending against him and the decision of a bench led by Justice Ramana in September to order expediting long-pending criminal trials against elected representatives across the country may have triggered the backlash from the chief minister.

Court’s response

For over five months, there was no official communication from the Supreme Court indicating what action had been initiated with regard to Reddy’s letter.

On Wednesday, as news broke of Chief Justice Bobde recommending Justice Ramana’s name as his successor to India’s top judicial post, the Supreme Court website carried a one-page statement that said the letter had been dealt with through in-house proceedings and was dismissed.

The in-house procedure was adopted by the court in 1999 as a form of remedial action to deal with complaints about sitting judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts. Under the procedure relating to Supreme Court judges, the Chief Justice seeks the response of the judge about the complaint if he finds that it is of a serious nature involving misconduct or impropriety. Upon receiving the response, if the Chief Justice is of the opinion that a deeper investigaton is necessary, a committee of three judges is formed.

A report in the Times of India said the letter had been looked into by Bobde and two senior judges, who found it “baseless, frivolous, false, motivated and an attempt to browbeat the judiciary.”

However, the Supreme Court said in its statement that the contents of the in-house proceedings will not be made public.

This leaves several questions unanswered.

First, how was the in-house investigation conducted? Did the committee use the services of an investigation agency to verify the allegations made about Justice Ramana? If so, which agency?

If the judges had directly inquired into the allegations and found them to be “baseless”, was Jagan Reddy given an opportunity to respond to the findings? The in-house procedure states that to conduct the inquiry, the committee should devise its own procedure “consistent with the principle of natural justice”.

Going by the Times of India report, if the in-house committee of judges found the letter to be an attempt to “browbeat the judiciary”, this would be a serious charge against Reddy that required contempt of court proceedings to be initiated, given the damage the letter has caused the reputation of the next Chief Justice of India. But will the court actually do so?

Court and transparency

There are at least two other instances in the recent past when the Supreme Court had decided to keep away from the public crucial reports that had serious consequences to its image.

In 2019, the court had put beyond public reach the findings of the in-house committee of judges that investigated the sexual harassment complaint against former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. The proceedings had found no substance in the complaint.

Next, when the sexual harassment complaint was made in April 2019, Utsav Bains, a Supreme Court lawyer, had alleged that there was a conspiracy to fix Gogoi in the case. The court formed a one-man committee headed by former judge AK Patnaik to look into allegations of a larger conspiracy against the judiciary.

The report of the committee was submitted in October, 2019. In February, the court took up the case for hearing and swiftly closed it by stating that no useful purpose would be served in continuing the proceedings. When RTI applications were filed asking for a copy of the report, the court refused to disclose it.

Revisit procedures

As lawyer Aarti Raghavan noted in The Hindu, the episode “serves as a reminder of the inadequate, self-fashioned rules that govern inquiries into judicial misconduct”. This includes, Raghavan says, the absence of any requirement to disclose the results of the inquiry.

This absence largely flows from a judgment the court delivered in 2003. While dealing with a petition that sought the release of the report of an in-house inquiry into a sexual harassment complaint against three judges of the Karnataka High Court, the Supreme Court held that in-house procedure reports are prepared for the satisfaction of the chief justice. It added that releasing the report to the public could do more harm to the institution as judges would rather prefer to face inquiry leading to impeachment.

As the court itself often notes in its judgements, not only should justice be done, it must also be seen to be done. This is important to ensure that the public trust in the integrity of the institution remains strong.

What shakes this trust is opaqueness. If the in-house committee’s finding is that Reddy made false allegations against a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, publication of the report that establishes this would only add to the credibility of the in-house proceedings. This is especially important when judges themselves inquire into allegations against fellow judges.

In the absence of the report in the public domain, any action against Reddy, whether it be in the form of contempt of court or otherwise, may find little traction with the public given that they would have nothing on which to base their judgement, except for a single-page statement from the court bereft of any insights into how it came to dismiss the allegations made by an important constitutional authority elected to office by the people of Andhra Pradesh.