A Talkative Judge

June 26, 2010

For the most part, lawyers in the Karnataka High Court, a stately neo-classical structure in Bangalore's Cubbon Park, are a restrained and circumspect lot. So when Udaya Holla, a distinguished senior advocate, complains about a judge's conduct and language, you know something is seriously wrong.

The judge in question is, of course, Justice Shylendra Kumar, India's only blogger-judge. Using his website (yes, it uses his official title), the judge is on a crusade to bring sunlight ('the best disinfectant') into our judiciary.In one corner of the present brouhaha stands Justice Kumar. In the other is Chief Justice P D Dinakaran, facing impeachment on charges of corruption.

For some months now, the Chief Justice has done no judicial work but continues to head the court's administration. Justice Kumar insists that till he is fully cleared, the Chief Justice must stop all administrative work too. On his blog, Justice Kumar claims to harbour brotherly love (evidently unrequited) in his judicial bosom for the Chief Justice.

He says he has no view on the charges against the CJ, but only demands probity.Whether Justice Kumar is right or wrong is irrelevant. What matters is that Justice Kumar's judicial pronouncements overlap his personal blogging. Should judges moonlight as citizen journalists, however weighty the cause? If they do, what hope impartiality?

Writing in the purplest of prose with endless typos, suspect syntax, bizarre punctuation and the most egregious hyperbole, Justice Kumar puts it all on public display: his exhausting letter to the Chief Justice; a wholly pointless tale about the latter refusing to meet him and returning a gift of fruits (later accepted 'gleefully' by another judge); Justice Kumar's repeated posting to the circuit benches; and more.Anything that crosses Justice Kumar's radar is grist to his blogging mill. Sure enough, he soon has even the Supreme Court in his crosshairs.

He 'apologises' to Arundhati Roy for the Supreme Court order holding her in contempt: 'I, as a Judge, through this expression, offer my personal regret and apology to Ms Arundhati Roy for the judicial tyranny let loose on her by the most improper use of the power to punish a person for committing contempt of court.'It is unclear just who authorised Justice Kumar to apologise for the Supreme Court. But this is surely a novel idea: use personal apologies to reverse the Supreme Court.This is one of the perils of the Internet. Anyone with connectivity is an immediately credible authority; more so if you're in a position of authority anyway.

While the typically over-the-top comment by Alan Shore, played by James Spader in the TV series Boston Legal, that bloggers are entry-level life forms yet to emerge from the primordial ooze isn't entirely true, would Justice Kumar's blog ever have found its way into a reputed journal? A cause is not more credible for being self-published on the Internet.

Judges work within a system. A judge cannot be part of this system, work against it from the outside and still be impartial. Many judges write scholarly texts or memoirs. A few do more: Ian Callinan of the Australian High Court was a published novelist and playwright even while a judge. In England, Lord Denning commented widely on many issues. Though his tone and language were sober, even this was too much.

A 1982 article in the London Times remarked that inappropriate tone and substance in personal comments by judges weakened public confidence in the judiciary.Judges have wide powers but few options; we have choices judges do not. A jurist may question the Supreme Court's collegial system. Many have, and rightly, but in measured terms.

A legislature may try to change it with a new law. But it is patently unjust for a judge to use his personal blog to describe the very system by which he was appointed as 'self-serving', 'secretive' and a 'cover up'. Worse, it is inexcusably uncivil.

As one of our own judges in Bombay put it, 'the discourse of law is the discourse of civility'. Justice Kumar says that his blog is an 'unusual bold' step, 'part of [his] duty and not beyond'. This is a remarkably individualistic view. It is also wrong. No such duty exists. Nor do the ends justify the means.Noble intentions pave the road we know so well. The journey is sooner completed when propelled by the injudicious conduct of those who should know better.

(This article was first published in the Mumbai Mirror on June 25, 2010, entitled "The Case of a Talkative Judge)

Just another fella with strong views
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