Stalled impeachment

Print edition : June 09, 2017

Justice C.V. Nagarjuna Reddy. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

The High court of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in Hyderabad. Photo: K.V.S. GIRI

The process to initiate impeachment proceedings against Justice C.V. Nagarjuna Reddy of the Andhra Pradesh/Telangana High Court for alleged interference in the course of the judicial process, including physical assault and use of caste slurs against a Dalit junior civil judge, is sought to be revived.

On December 5, 2016, Justice C.V. NagaRjuna Reddy of the High Court for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana became the fifth judge in independent India against whom Members of Parliament resolved to begin impeachment proceedings; but he was the first against whom the process ended within 10 days of its commencement after one-third of the Rajya Sabha members withdrew their signatures, aborting the motion for want of the requisite numbers in the Upper House.

In India’s constitutional scheme of things, judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court enjoy complete independence to adjudicate “without fear or favour”. As per Article 124 (4) of the Constitution, the only way to remove a judge for “proven misbehaviour” is through an elaborate process of impeachment initiated by not less than 50 MPs of the Upper House or double that number in the Lok Sabha.

The process was first attempted in 1993 against Justice V. Ramaswami of the Supreme Court after an inquiry and adverse findings. The motion failed as Congress MPs present in the Lok Sabha abstained from voting, leading to a lack of a two-thirds majority favouring impeachment, which is another requirement under Article 124 (4) of the Constitution.

The allegations against Justice Nagarjuna Reddy, if true, are grave. One of them was that he interfered in the course of the judicial process, including physical assault and caste slurs against a Dalit junior civil judge posted in his home town, Rayachoti, in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh. The December 1, 2014, representation to the Supreme Court seeking initiation of in-house inquiry into his accusations by Sanku Rama Krishna, the Junior Civil Judge/Magistrate, accessed by Frontline, says that Justice Nagarjuna Reddy’s brother Pavan Kumar Reddy, who was the Additional Public Prosecutor at the Rayachoti District Court, was part of a wide nexus of red sandalwood smuggling in cahoots with the local administration and the police. He claimed that Justice Reddy and his brother “control the entire judicial machinery of Rayachoti, from appointments to granting of bail to undertrials, to administrative duties such as records maintenance”. Rama Krishna, in fact, holds the brothers responsible for the “disappearance of court records” in several instances.

This was also the time when Justice Nagarjuna Reddy was the “portfolio judge” of Kadapa. In layman’s terms, it is an administrative supervisory role over a certain jurisdiction that lies within the High Court’s purview.

The aborted motion, initially signed by 54 Rajya Sabha members, which was accessed by Frontline, states that Pavan Reddy set his domestic help on fire in a fit of rage, leading to his death on November 20, 2012. This, he said, was because Ramanjulu, the domestic help, refused to cooperate in a cover-up of the use of a Forest Department vehicle for smuggling sandalwood. The dying declaration given by Ramanjulu to Rama Krishna, which was accessed by a Guntur-based non-profit organisation under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, shows it was recorded around 8 p.m. on November 20, 2012, at the Government Area Hospital, Rayachoti. Rama Krishna claimed that Justice Nagarjuna Reddy called him 10 days later demanding that he drop his brother’s name from the dying declaration.

The dying declaration elaborates Pavan Reddy’s attempt to get Ramanjulu’s signature on blank sheets of paper, to use it as his admission for the theft of the vehicle. He further stated that his refusal to do so enraged Pavan Reddy, who in an inebriated state poured kerosene on Ramanjulu and set him on fire.

There are also accusations of demands to withdraw criminal complaints lodged by Rama Krishna against two court staff, one of whom is Justice Nagarjuna Reddy’s niece D.R. Laxmi Devi. Rama Krishna’s February 7, 2013, complaint accuses the court staff of colluding with undertrials, faking weekly appearances, forging judges’ signatures, and even tearing off pages from record books. Rama Krishna’s complaint about a week later, on February 13, accused Justice Nagarjuna Reddy and his brother of physical abuse, threats to kill him and the use of caste slurs in the presence of the local Circle Inspector at the judge’s home in Rayachoti for refusing to withdraw the complaints.

Rama Krishna began a series of attempts to seek redress by way of complaints, representations and writ petitions both in the High Court and in the Supreme Court. His first complaint was with the Vigilance Registrar at the High Court in Hyderabad the day after the alleged incident. He filed a simultaneous complaint with the Chief Justice of the same court. A week later, he was transferred to Chintapalli in Visakhapatnam district, that is, from Rayalaseema to coastal Andhra in the Tribal Agency Area. And another three weeks later, he was suspended from duty as the Junior First Class Magistrate (JFCM). He has not been reinstated since.

Rama Krishna followed up with a representation in the Supreme Court on September 17 that year, aggrieved that neither the Vigilance Registrar nor the Chief Justice of the High Court had initiated an inquiry into his complaint. The Supreme Court returned the complaint to the High Court seeking its opinion on the matter.

inquiry mechanism

There is an in-house inquiry mechanism for the country’s higher judiciary, which was set in motion by a Supreme Court judgment in 1995. The C. Ravichandran Iyer vs A.M. Bhattacharjee judgment directed the Chief Justices of all High Courts to receive complaints relating to judges of their courts. It also directed them to ascertain the veracity of the accusations and “consult the Chief Justice of India where deemed necessary, by placing all their information with him” but left it to the discretion of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) whether to inquire into the complaint or not.

Frontline has learnt that following a representation made to him by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) on August 30, 2016, the then CJI, Justice T.S. Thakur, requested his colleague Justice Ranjan Gogoi to scrutinise the case for a preliminary view. The CJAR is a Delhi-based advocacy network seeking to reform and fight corruption and impropriety in the higher judiciary. Justice Gogoi, in turn, suggested a more thorough three-member inquiry committee, which is the process put in place by the 1995 judgment. But this process was not initiated. Justice Thakur retired on January 4 this year after 13 months as the CJI. According to jurists, the paucity of time, with retirement looming, often scuttles in-house procedures.

The CJAR representation also accused Pavan Reddy of continuing in office as the Additional Public Prosecutor (APP) “illegally for a decade”. It said: “The law mandates that a person who has practised as an advocate for not less than seven years is eligible to be appointed as APP. Pavan Reddy was the sarpanch of Gadikota village of Veerballi Mandal, Kadapa district, during the period 2001-2006. Pavan Reddy was appointed as APP in 2006 for a period of three years in contravention of the law that mandates seven years of continuous practice as an advocate prior to appointment as an APP. He was given another term for three years, which ended in 2009. His third term ended in April 2012 and Mr. P. Bharani Kumar was appointed as APP in place of Pavan Reddy. On 16.05.2012, however, P. Bharani Kumar was removed and the temporary charge was again given to Pavan Reddy. Apparently, thereafter, he was regularised and is continuing till today.”

Meanwhile, Rama Krishna filed two writ petitions in the High Court in Hyderabad—one in 2013 seeking action on his complaint against Justice Nagarjuna Reddy and another in 2014 seeking a direction to the High Court’s Vigilance Registrar to inquire into the complaints levelled against Pavan Reddy and other court staff at Rayachoti.

A two-judge bench of the High Court finally admitted the second petition after the removal of Justice Nagarjuna Reddy as a respondent among the list of parties, arguing that it was improper for the High Court to consider accusations in open court against one of their own.

Exasperated, Rama Krishna breached an ethical code: he held a press conference to get his message across. This invited contempt proceedings by the High Court, which Rama Krishna challenged in the Supreme Court.

Rama Krishna attempted once again to reinstate Justice Nagarjuna Reddy as a party in the High Court case earlier this year. On March 9, a two-judge bench led by Justice V. Ramasubramanian rejected the plea with adverse findings. The court held that several documents submitted by Rama Krishna as evidence were not genuine or tampered with. It reasoned that this was apparent from the inconsistencies in the dates mentioned in the various representations and the corrections found in Ramanjulu’s dying declaration to portray a conscious state of the victim while, according to the court, the medical opinion was otherwise.

On December 6 last year, a day after the first motion to initiate impeachment proceedings was presented, Justice Nagarjuna Reddy declared his intention to go on leave. Ten days later, 19 of the 61 MPs withdrew their signatures, owing to a sudden change of mind. The Hindu quoted YSR Congress MP Vijay Sai Reddy as saying: “If you are trying to bring in caste into every aspect, we will not be able to function properly as a society.” As the requisite numbers were not there, Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari refrained from constituting a three-member committee under the 1968 Judges Inquiry Act, which is the next stage of the impeachment procedure. Justice Nagarjuna Reddy returned to work in Hyderabad the next day.

At the time of filing this story, Rama Krishna’s mobile phone was “not in service” and one of the lawyers who appeared for him in the Hyderabad High Court replied via text message to this correspondent saying: “Since a few days his whereabouts are not known, everyone is trying to reach him, it’s worrying”.

The motion for impeachment sets out certain other unacceptable conduct by Justice Nagarjuna Reddy, like acquiring assets disproportionate to known sources of income and purchasing a property when he was engaged as counsel in that very case, which is prohibited conduct for a lawyer. These are not issues covered by the order of the High Court rejecting Rama Krishna’s plea. In any case, the High Court’s order is not a final one in the writ petition .

Frontline has learnt that another attempt has been made to initiate impeachment proceedings against Justice Nagarjuna Reddy. A Rajya Sabha member, who played an active role in mobilising support for the process, said that this time there would be no withdrawal of signatures and that the motion, with the requisite numbers, had been resubmitted to the Rajya Sabha Chairman. The process of impeachment under the Constitution is a political one. It remains to be seen whether Parliament will view the judge’s alleged conduct as misbehaviour to consider his removal.