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Self-made man

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Justice P. Sathasivam. Photo: V. Sudershan

Justice P. Sathasivam, the 40th Chief Justice of India, is seen as an interactive and responsive judge.

KADAPPANALLUR in Bhavani taluk of Erode district in Tamil Nadu is an obscure village by any standards. With 2,458 people and 643 households, this predominantly agricultural village would have continued to remain in obscurity but for Palanisamy Sathasivam, its first law graduate. On June 29, Sathasivam made his village and the State proud when President Pranab Mukherjee appointed him the next Chief Justice of India (CJI). Justice Sathasivam, to be sworn in on July 19, will be the 40th CJI and the first from Tamil Nadu.

Born on April 27, 1949, in an agricultural family, Sathasivam was also the first graduate in his family. He enrolled as an advocate after completing his law degree at the Madras Law College on July 25, 1973. After a successful legal practice involving all types of writ, civil and criminal matters, on both original and appellate sides of the Madras High Court, he worked as the Tamil Nadu government’s advocate, additional and special government pleader in the Madras High Court. In 1996, at the age of 47, he became a permanent judge of the Madras High Court. After a brief stint in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2007, he was elevated to the Supreme Court on August 21 that year. His tenure as the CJI will last up to April 27 next year, when he will retire at the age of 65.

Justice Sathasivam’s rise in the legal profession is significant because, unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not have the advantage of hailing from a family with a legal background.

A self-made man, Justice Sathasivam acquired the image of a neutral judge even after working as a government pleader. Lawyers consider him administratively sound and hard-working and a predictable judge. Indeed, it is this certainty in law and his predictable interpretations that have endeared him to the Bar. “There are no surprises in his judgments, and this helped him to clear a lot of clutter,” observed a senior advocate of the Supreme Court.

Another senior advocate who has appeared before him in several cases in the Supreme Court said: “He is polite, but firm; he has an earthy common sense, his humility is transparent, and he is prompt in the delivery of judgments. The Bar can look forward to dealing with an interactive and a responsive CJI.”

Justice Sathasivam’s judicial philosophy is humane and tilted in favour of the downtrodden. In cases involving a discretionary choice between life and death sentence, Justice Sathasivam almost always preferred a life sentence, emphasising the rehabilitative potential of the convict.

On other matters, he has been meticulous in his interpretation of the law irrespective of who the litigants are. While this has earned him the image of an impartial and objective judge, his judicial record is not entirely free from controversies.

A case in point is the matter involving the lifting of the ban imposed by the Tamil Nadu government on the release of the film Dam 999, on the specious plea that the film was about the Mullaperiyar dam over which Tamil Nadu and Kerala have serious disputes. Justice Sathasivam refused to consider the legal aspects involved in the challenge to the extension of the ban, saying the court could not ignore people’s sentiments. Had the court considered the film producer’s challenge on the basis of legal precedents, it could have resulted in an order favouring the film’s exhibition and the lifting of the ban, which would have been consistent with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

In the numerous interviews that he gave to the media, Justice Sathasivam has defended the collegium system of appointment to the higher judiciary, which has come under criticism from the Bar and the government for being non-transparent. How the Supreme Court views the government’s efforts to tinker with the process of appointing and disciplining judges through fresh legislation, therefore, will be watched with interest.

The Supreme Court and the entire judicial family in the country can look forward to an eventful period during Justice Sathasivam’s tenure as the CJI.

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