"Taking post-retirement jobs amounts to betraying oath of office", Justice Gopala Gowda

Aditya AK November 20 2017
Gopala Gowda

In this candid interview, former Supreme Court judge and Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court Justice Venkate Gopala Gowda takes us through his career and discusses pressing issues pertaining to the legal profession.

The first thing you notice about Justice Gopala Gowda is that he wears his heart on his sleeve. It is rather unusual for a judge – retired or otherwise – to express such strong opinions, and to be critical of the system he was once part of. But then again, he is not your run-of-the-mill judge.

He has some misgivings about the media, and for good reason. A news report published in 2002, later found to be baseless, threatened to derail his career as a judge. Apprehensions notwithstanding, he agrees to answer my questions.

The former Supreme Court, Orissa High Court and Karnataka High Court judge does not hesitate in concurring with former Chief Justice of India TS Thakur, who once described him as a judge of the people.

“I was very popular among the lawyers and the litigants and public as well.”

And sure enough, there is evidence of this statement. Ten minutes into our meeting, Justice Gowda has a couple of visitors all the way from Orissa, bearing bouquets of flowers and heaps of gratitude.

Once the pleasantries are out of the way, they take a seat and listen intently as their idol recounts his journey in the legal profession.

“When I started my practice as a lawyer, I appeared for the lower classes, women, working class, the youth. I very rarely appeared for the landlord. I used to take up socially relevant issues.”

After practicing for twenty-two years, he received the call to join the Bench as a judge of the Karnataka High Court.

Karnataka

Justice Gopala Gowda was elevated to the Karnataka HC in 1997

“My parents did not like the idea of my becoming a judge. I myself never had the inclination. I wanted to serve society as a lawyer, representing people who did not have the economic sustainability to fight cases.

The work I did to uplift the weaker sections of society was noticed by then Chief Justice RP Sethi. They offered me judgeship, and I accepted it. At that time, the service conditions and salary were not that lucrative. Though I was at the zenith of my practice, I made a sacrifice to become a judge.”

After spending two years as an additional judge, Justice Gowda was on the brink of resigning and going back to his practice. However, certain well-wishers would persuade him to stay on as a judge.

More than ten years later, he was elevated as the Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, where he spent two and a half years. He would eventually be elevated to Supreme Court in December 2012.

“I was a pro-people judge during my tenure. I did not go out of the way to ensure justice, but in cases where people had been denied justice, I used to apply my mind and render judgments in the interest of the public. I did not allow the vested interests of the state to operate.”

And this label of being a pro-people judge, Justice Gowda says, was one of the reasons why his elevation to the apex court did not happen sooner.

“There were many obstructions for my elevation to the Supreme Court, because I am a pro-people judge. I had made a number of decisions against the government in land acquisition. In 2004, I had passed strictures against the Karnataka government. Later, I did the same thing against the Odisha government, when it gave 8800 acres of government land to Vedanta without following the procedure.

So, the industrialists were under the impression that I was against industrial growth, which I am not. In our country, where 74% of the population live in rural areas, industrial growth is not enough. If they are deprived of agricultural land in order to create real estate for the benefit of a few well-off people, it amounts to a violation of their constitutional rights.”

He says that he never consciously set out to be a pro-labour judge. Rather, he would consider himself a judge who was wedded to legal and constitutional principles.

“It is not a question of being pro-labour, a judge has to see whether the state has acted in consonance with constitutional principles, and whether the statutory rights of the people are being flouted by the government.

So, people have misinterpreted me as a pro-labour judge. If you read my judgments, you will see that I have understood Part III and IV and applied the same while deciding a case.”

This fact is reflected in the landmark judgments he delivered during his tenure in the Supreme Court. He begins with the TATA land acquisition case in Singur, West Bengal.

Noise pollution

Justice Gowda delivered the judgment in the Singur acquisition case

“The Special Enactment was passed by the present government in 2011. I interpreted Part VII to say that industrialist do not have the right to choose what kind of land they get; they must follow the procedure. So, I quashed the acquisition and directed that the land be returned to the owners.”

He was also part of the Supreme Court Bench that ordered the highest compensation ever in a medical negligence case.

“A psychologist from Kolkata was admitted to the hospital for a skin problem. After receiving an overdose of medicine, she died. In 2013, when the case came before me on appeal from the Consumer Forum, I enhanced the compensation to more than Rs. 8 crore.

On account of this judgment, doctors went into a state of panic! They complained that the compensation was too high, but it was based on certain principles. She was earning thousands of dollars in America, and she died in her thirties. I awarded Rs. 10 lakh as compensation for loss of companionship alone. Today, because of my judgment, doctors are more careful.”

During his tenure of almost four years in the apex court, Justice Gowda was witness to five different Chief Justices of India. So, who according to him, ran the Court most efficiently?

“That is difficult to say. Things moved fast under the tenure of Justice Lodha, as far as disposal of cases was concerned.”

CJI RM Lodha

Things moved fast under the tenure of Justice Lodha, as far as disposal of cases was concerned.”

On the topic of efficiency, he is of the opinion that the administration of the Court needs to be revamped.

“I think the method of disposal in the Supreme Court must be completely changed. The good old practices are very unwieldy. A Supreme Court judge has to work like a bull, hearing seventy cases a day. One year of work is equivalent to working for five years.

The Chief Justice must take assistance from other judges; he need not exclusively administer the whole system. There are already Committees in place. Instead of this, the judges should sit together and discuss how the judicial system should be evolved, how cases can be disposed of speedily, how we can equip ourselves to decide cases.”

He is of the opinion that streamlining the way judges work can lead to a drop in pendency figures.

“Cases are not being dealt with effectively, because of a lack of clarity. Judges are also human beings. They can work for a maximum of 7-8 hours. The methodology of working has to be changed. There needs to be focus on conceptual understanding. Once this is there, you can decide a case that usually takes 3-4 hours within half an hour.

Yesterday, I got a case file of my relative’s case pending in the Andhra Pradesh High Court for forty-two years. There was so much dust on it; it looked like it hadn’t been opened in decades. I read it once and understood the crux of the case within half an hour.”

On that note, he makes no bones about having witnessed a lack of competence in the higher judiciary.

“In my experience, I have seen that some judges lack clarity of conceptual understanding of laws. Just by looking at the file, you must know which case requires attention and which does not. For that, one must read a lot. As a judge, your perception of the case must not mix with your ideology. You have to keep in mind the ideologies of the Constitution.”

And how can this be improved?

“The district judiciary must be completely streamlined. Today, our Supreme Court and the high courts are flooded with cases because the lower courts do not understand the cases properly. The academies are supposed to ensure that the judges do this. But according to me, the academies are not giving the desired results.

Academies must teach throughout the year; it must not be a one-day or one-week affair. Every day, one judge must give a talk on a subject and a debate must follow. This will help them attain clarity in understanding of law.”

He is also critical about the way the Supreme Court Collegium functions at times, though he does not disagree with the system itself.

“I don’t fault the collegium system, but I have a problem with arbitrarily choosing persons as judges. There is no difficulty in identifying persons who will be good judges.

The judges in the Collegium must be true to their conscience. They must know that they are not working according to their likes and dislikes. The institution exists for the people of the country.”

Having said that, he welcomes the Collegium’s recent decision to make their deliberations public.

“It is a good move, it [the deliberations] should be transparent. The decision to reveal all the material aspects must be left with the Collegium with reference to the recommendation that is made by the Collegium of the High Court.

If the Intelligence Bureau (IB) report says something contrary to the High Court Collegium, non-consideration of candidature must be supported by some material. There should not be mechanical acceptance of the IB report.”

On the back of recent developments, particularly the Justice Karnan issue, the Collegium’s method of appointing judges has come under scrutiny. So, what are the views of someone who has been on the inside?

Karnan

“See, Karnan is only person who has come out in the public domain. There are so many such persons in the judiciary.”

“See, Karnan is only person who has come out in the public domain. There are so many such persons in the judiciary.”

Having said that, he believes that the Supreme Court should have handled the situation a different way.

“Impeachment is the only way for removal of a judge, and that should not be meddled with. They sent a message to all judges saying, ‘Tomorrow, if you misbehave, we will deal with you through contempt’. Contempt jurisdiction must be very, very sparingly used. I am not saying what he did was correct. But this is not the way it should have been handled.

They should have immediately taken notice and referred it to Parliament for impeachment proceedings. I don’t want to criticize it, because the Supreme Court has taken its decision. Time alone will tell whether it was correct or not.”

He also has very strong opinions about representation in the Supreme Court.

“Based on the concept of federalism, the Supreme Court must have representation from all states. Today, there is no representation from Rajasthan, Meghalaya, and so many other states. There is no representation for the SC/ST category. Why is there only one woman judge?

Regional balance is often ignored when it comes to appointing judges; they fail to understand the realities of a complex society. There must be a judge who understands the problems of the working class, a judge who understands women’s empowerment issues. The very best from among these groups must be appointed.”

It comes as no surprise that he is passionately in favour of reservations in institutions of legal education as well. In fact, he was the one who initially suggested the introduction of a 50% domicile reservation at NLSIU, Bangalore.

“When I was a member, at every General Council meeting, I used to advocate for having domicile reservation for NLSIU. Article 15 is applicable to educational institutions. It is in the psyche of the upper class to deprive the legitimate right of the people who are deserving.

This country belongs to every section of society. Until and unless you achieve equality among all sections of society, reservation must be there. It is the birth right of people from the state to get reservation.”

It is probably not the best time to ask him about the most controversial part of his career, but I do anyway. In 2002, a news report was published alleging that Justice Gowda and two other judges of the Karnataka High Court took part in questionable activities. The report was later found to be bogus by a three-judge inquiry committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice CK Thakker.

Justice CK Thakker

Justice CK Thakker, who headed the committee that exonerated Gowda J and others

I have clearly opened old wounds by probing about the incident; Justice Gowda’s guests are looking at me with disdain. The former judge himself looks irate. He answers,

“That is the reason my elevation was stalled. It was a well-planned conspiracy by people who have vested interests. They wanted to dislodge me from my judgeship. If you see the report by Justice Thakker, you will get your answer. They failed, I succeeded and went on to go to the Supreme Court. People have told me that I should have been in the Supreme Court for five more years.

The media should have verified the facts. I am a teetotaller and an honest person. Brick by brick, I have made my way from my village to the Supreme Court. Why did the media fail to say anything on the report passed by a committee of three judges? I could have filed cases against the conspirators and Times of India for hundreds of crores. My views are vindicated in the three-judge committee report.”

I find myself searching for softball questions in order to defuse the situation, but all I can think of is another controversial topic. That of post-retirement jobs. Justice Gowda has strong opinions on this issue as well.

“It is rampant. It amounts to betraying the oath of your office. A judge should not keep an eye on a post after he retires. It means he is dishonest. After you retire, you get a pension, that is sufficient. How many people don’t get three square meals a day? 74% of the people earn less than Rs. 5000 a month and I get a pension of Rs. 70,000 a month.

You must not aim to be in the good books of the government in order to get a post-retirement job. Some judges feel that if they take action against the arbitrary actions of the government, they will not be chosen after retirement. That should not matter.”

At this point, I feel I have overstayed my welcome, even though Justice Gowda appears to have retained his poise. To end on a lighter note, I ask him how he spends his retirement.

“I am busier than a Supreme Court judge! I have retired, but I have not retired. Just before you came, some people asked me to attend a state-level seminar on reservations. Almost every day, I attend one of these functions, where I give advice to the people.”

After all, he is a man of the people.

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