The Curious Case Of Justice C.S.Karnan: Contempt Notice versus Convoluted Condensate of Corruption in Higher Judiciary


“To err is human. Courts including the apex one are no exception. To own up the mistake when judicial satisfaction is reached does not militate against its status or authority. Perhaps it would enhance both.”, so goes the pronouncement of Supreme Court of India in Antulay’s matter where a seven judges bench of Supreme Court reviewed and recalled its own five judges bench decision and gave relief to Antulay, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

The present question of law is on the legality and propriety of a seven judges bench of Supreme Court issuing suo motu contempt notice and also bailable arrest warrant against Justice C.S.Karnan, a sitting judge of Calcutta High Court.

On one side, the shocking shackles of contempt notice and bailable arrest warrant, and, on the other side the convoluted condensate of corruption in higher judiciary boldly brought to surface by Justice Karnan before he was transferred from Madras High Court to Calcutta High Court, makes the case of Justice Karnan not only a curious case but also a test of the efficacy of the protection afforded by Indian Constitution to judges of High Courts and Supreme Court.

It is very easy to jump to the conclusion that it is at best the taming of a ‘temperamental’ high court judge. But it is not so easy to wish away the corruption in the judiciary including the higher judiciary. Fortunately, there were and there are honest, hardworking and sincere judges at all levels. But their number is dwindling. That is what causes and what should cause alarm.

From the web site of Supreme Court of India one can see three orders dated February 8, February 13 and March 10, 2017, to know, up till now, the pending case of Justice Karnan.

Under the order dated February 8, 2017, Suo Motu Contempt Petition (Civil) No. 1 of 2017 was initiated and show cause notice was issued to Justice C.S. Karnan by a seven judges bench of Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India Jagdish Singh Khehar, with other judges on the bench, Justices Dipak Misra, J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur, Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Kurian Joseph. Suo Motu means on the own motion of the judges. The order dated Mar 10, 2017 issued bailable warrant of arrest for being brought before Supreme Court on 31.03.2017.

With the order dated Feb 8, till the case is decided, Justice Karnan has been relieved of his duties and asked to return judicial and administration files to the court registrar.

It needs to be mentioned that the Contempt Petition against Justice Karnan is civil and not criminal. Contempt may be criminal or civil. Criminal contempt is conduct (whether words or actions) that obstructs or tends to obstruct the administration of justice. Civil contempt is deliberate disobedience of an order of the court or breach of an undertaking given to the court. Either is punishable by committal or fine.

The order dated Feb 8, 2017 issuing show cause notice to Justice Karnan returnable on 13.02.2017 does not record reasons for issuing the notice except directing the Registry, “the letters taken note of while issuing notice, are furnished to Shri Justice C.S.Karnan.” Therefore, people are compelled to infer that some letters written by Justice Karnan became the basis to issue the show cause notice for civil contempt.

It is difficult to understand how the letters written by a High Court Judge could form the basis for suo motu civil contempt proceedings. Since there are no explicit reasons recorded in the order dated Feb 8, for issuing show cause notice, the public is left to depend on the media to know the reasons. According to some of the media reports, Justice Karnan has written letters to the Chief Justice of India, Prime Minister, Law Minister and Judges of other High Courts discussing the corruption connected to several sitting and retired judges and these letters formed the basis for suo motu contempt notice from the Supreme Court.

Justice Karnan is not the first person and the only person to talk of the corruption in the higher judiciary in India. Several years back, Shanti Bhushan, a very senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, and former Union law Minister, had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that half of the previous 16 Chief Justices of India were definitely corrupt (he named them in a sealed envelope which he gave to the Court), and he was uncertain about 2 more. The public is aware that since then more Chief Justices of India who retired had serious allegations of corruption against them.

In April 2016, noted lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan in a talk show was reported to have stated, “Judiciary is an important institution… But the judicial system has collapsed. A big movement is needed to improve it,” , “There is no institution free of government and judiciary (control) where a complaint against the judiciary can be lodged. Due to this, corruption is thriving,”

Over the years, considerable public discussion has been taking place in the country underlining the need for transparency in the functioning of the judiciary and in particular transparency in the matter of appointment and removal of judges.

In his defence, Justice Karnan is reported to have taken the position that he is targeted for seeking investigation into the corruption in higher judiciary. Truth cannot fail to be a defence in contempt of court proceedings. This is a pure question of law.

Another contention of Justice Karnan is that he is targeted and discriminated for being a Dalit. This requires examination of facts.

As regards the discrimination for being Dalit, some critics aired that Justice Karnan is hoisting Dalit card as some kind of red herring while there is no discrimination at all. To say there is no discrimination against Dalits and Lower Classes amounts to being as much honest as in claiming there is no corruption in the higher judiciary.

The legal defences, as known to the public through the media, that are being taken by Justice Karnan, even though they are not correctly and coherently articulated, cannot be arbitrarily brushed aside and they require consideration by an appropriate bench of Supreme Court. According to Justice Karnan, Supreme Court has “no locus standi” to issue a bailable warrant against a sitting judge. His contention is that no contempt action, either civil or criminal, can be initiated against a sitting High Court Judge under Sections 2(c), 12 and 14 of the Contempt of Courts Act or can he be deprived of protection under Article 20 of the Constitution. According to him, “Only a motion of impeachment can be initiated against a sitting judge of the higher judiciary before the Parliament after due enquiry under the Judges’ Enquiry Act”. Referring to the directive that he should be brought before Supreme Court (SC), under a bailable arrest warrant, Justice Karnan contends and says , “The SC shares equal power and rights with all the HCs of the country . It is not my master and I am not its servant. I will not appear before the SC.” He further added, “if the law keepers of the country have taken an unprecedented route to malign me, I’ve the power to take an unprecedented route to fight back”. It is perhaps the way a person reacts when he is pushed to the wall.

It appears, as part of the unprecedented route to fight back, Justice Karnan issued an “order” directing the CBI to register and probe cases under Article 226 and CrPc Section 482 against a host of judges from different courts for corruption, rape and embezzlement. “I had written to the PM to initiate investigations against at least 22 corrupt judges. That was on January 23 this year. Most of them are from upper castes and that is why no investigation has started. It is because I was bold to bring charges against them that I am being cornered now. I am a Dalit and that is why I am being targeted,” he said. He also appealed to the President to revoke the warrant against him. “Only the President can restore my prestige now and I appeal to his good offices,” Justice Karnan said.

The Achilles Heel of the seven judges bench of Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Khehar gets revealed from its recorded contention in the order dated March 10, 2017, “In view of the above, there is no other alternative but to seek the presence of Shri Justice C.S.Karnan by issuing bailable warrants.”

The alternative available was ignored by the Supreme Court as could be seen from the recording in the very same order dated Mar 10, “It would be pertinent to mention, that the Registry of this Court received a fax message, from Shri Justice C.S.Karnan, dated 08.03.2017, seeking a meeting with the Chief Justice and the Hon’ble Judges of this Court, so as to discuss certain administrative issues expressed therein, which primarily seem to reflect the allegations levelled by him against certain named Judges. The above fax message, dated 08.03.2017, cannot be considered as a response of Shri Justice C.S.Karnan, either to the contempt petition, or to the notice served upon him.”

Thus the seven judges bench was not willing to extend the respect that a sitting Judge of High Court deserves for being heard keeping his dignity and honour as a High Court Judge and to explore alternative ways to resolve the razing conflict that could further damage the good name of the higher judiciary. The respect should be at least to the post of High Court Judge, if not to the person of Karnan. Attorney General for India Mukul Rohatgi could have assisted the seven judge bench in this connection. But as is evident from the order dated Mar 10, 2017, the seven judges bench is bent upon seeing the High Court Judge as contemnor, “The above fax message, dated 08.03.2017, cannot be considered as a response of Shri Justice C.S.Karnan, either to the contempt petition, or to the notice served upon him.”

Dealing with the curious case of Justice Karnan, eminent lawyer Ram Jethmalani in his inimitable style informed the media that he has written a letter dated 11.03.2017 from the departure lounge of God’s airport giving advice to Justice Karnan, “As a senior member of the Bar and living in the departure lounge of God’s airport I am advising you to withdraw every word that you have uttered and humbly pray for pardon for every stupid action you have so far indulged in.”. Having been “convinced”, Jethmalani tells Justice Karnan, “Your behavior is that of a lunatic …”

The substance of Jethmalani’s letter in his own words, “In this corruption-dominated country, our judiciary is the only protection. Do not destroy it or weaken it,”

With due respects to Jethmalani it must be said that no one is trying to destroy the judiciary. The fact is judiciary is destroying itself. Jethmalani is looking at it from a wrong end.

While deciding to issue suo motu contempt notice to a sitting judge of High Court, and the subsequent bailable arrest warrant, the seven judges bench of Supreme Court, it appears, did not anticipate that the challenge to the institutional integrity and authority of the higher judiciary could originate not only from executive action, legislative provision, but also from judicial decision.

The legality and propriety of the decision to issue suo motu civil contempt notice to a sitting judge of the High Court and the bailable warrant of arrest cannot be decided by the very same seven judges bench who decided the suo motu contempt notice and bailable arrest warrant. It has to go to a larger bench for consideration.

The profitable way to analyse the curious case of Justice Karnan is not to focus on the “idiosyncrasies”, if any, of Justice Karnan but to find ways to examine into the allegations of corruption levelled by him. One obvious question that arises from this case is, even if the self-destructive adventurism of a High Court Judge fails to penetrate the convoluted condensate of corruption in the higher judiciary, whether the contempt notice and bailable warrant against Justice Karnan should ultimately result in pushing the issue of corruption under the carpet. Whether it is the right occasion to undertake thorough investigation into the corruption in the higher judiciary, in order to preserve and promote the health of Indian democracy and the rule of law in the country mandated by Indian Constitution?

The writer is former Indian Navy captain with Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and a practicing advocate of Supreme Court of India. His e-mail address is

Copy right of this article is owned by the author.

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