Mr Justice K. G. Balakrishnan's assumption of office as the Chief Justice of India has received universal applause for the reason of him being the first Dalit to occupy the highest position in the nation's judiciary. His elevation is due to sheer dint of his merits and attainments as also a long track record of distinguished service to the legal profession.
I would rather hail the fact that he is going to have a tenure of three years, the longest in living memory. This would enable him to put the stamp of his talents and vision on a branch of the Constitutional system which is perhaps the only institution which is still held in high esteem for playing its assigned role exactly as intended by the Founding Fathers, and for being the bulwark of the Rule of Law.
Mr Justice Balakrishnan thus has a golden opportunity to make the judiciary the exemplar of all that is best and noblest in respect of values and personal and official conduct of the presiding officers of courts right down to the lowest level.
It will be shutting one's eyes to reality to pretend that all is well with the judiciary. Indeed, the unsullied reputation that it once enjoyed has begun sagging with corruption seeping into its portals and even members of the higher judiciary, fortunately few and far between yet, being involved in ugly situations tantamount to egregious misconduct. Never before since India's Independence has accountability of the judiciary, a creature of the Constitution to "We, the People," assumed such vital importance as it has now.
The first task of the new Chief Justice of India is to ensure that the Restatement of the Values of Judicial Life, adopted at the Conference of the Chief Justices of the High Courts in December 1999, is not looked upon just as a set of suggestions, adherence to which is left to the discretion of the judges. It embodies all the essential precepts governing judicial conduct and should be made binding as a live Charter of Judges' Accountability to the People. This it can become only if it is enforced sternly.
One way of doing it is to form a standing watchdog committee in the Supreme Court and the High Courts comprising the Chief Justice and two or three companion Justices to take prompt action, without getting lost in procedural or technical formalities, on reports of deviant behaviour.
The importance attached to the highest standards of propriety and prudence by the judges should not just be confined to a piece of paper but be seen to be an integral part of the Rule of Law itself, observed in letter and in spirit.
The new Chief Justice will no doubt revisit the extant systems, procedures and practices in the interest of quick delivery of justice. There has been no dearth of proposals mooted by numerous panels. A more rigorous streamlining of public interest litigation, restricting appeals to higher judiciary to points of law, not wasting Benches of multiple Judges on peripheral issues, such as grant of bail, frequent inspections of subordinate courts, and cutting down on vacations are some of the areas which will benefit from his close attention.
He would electrify the country if he comes up with substantive initiatives in these and other directions within the first 100 days.