The Verdictum: Former Supreme Court judge, Justice Kurian Joseph

Aditya AK September 14 2019
justice Kurian Joseph

Justice Kurian Joseph was elevated as a judge of the Supreme Court of India on March 8, 2013. He served as an Apex Court judge for more than five years – 2,156 days to be precise – before retiring on November 30 last year.

Justice Joseph was educated at Kerala Law Academy’s Law College in Thiruvananthapuram. He began his practice at the Kerala High Court in 1979 and was designated as a Senior Advocate in 1996.

He made the switch to the Bench in July 2000, when he was appointed as an additional judge of the Kerala High Court. He served two terms as Acting Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court. He also served as Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court for three years before his elevation to the Supreme Court.

At the farewell function held a day before his retirement, Justice Kurian Joseph was described as a “compassionate” judge by those present. In reply, he stated,

“Compassion from the Court is not the charity of a Judge, it is a bounden duty of a Constitutional Judge.”

Justice Joseph also took part in the infamous Judges’ Press Conference in January 2018, when the seniormost judges of the Supreme Court protested that matters of constitutional and national importance were not being assigned to them.

As was the case with Justice Chelameswar, the numbers show that the four judges’ gripes were indeed justified. With respect to Justice Joseph, he was not involved in any constitutional bench matters, or any matters of national importance during the tenure of then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.

Below follows a quantitative analysis of Justice Joseph’s tenure as a Supreme Court judge.

Monthly distribution of rulings

During his tenure, Justice Kurian Joseph was involved in passing a whopping 1,250 orders and judgments. He authored 1,078 of these.

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He was most productive in month of August, having passed 319 rulings. February and July, when he passed 128 and 117 rulings respectively, were also productive months for Justice Joseph.

Apart from the vacation months of May and June, Joseph J’s least productive months were October and December, during which he passed 61 rulings each.

Day-wise productivity

Justice Joseph’s day-wise productivity for August is at 1.71. To put that in perspective, on average, he passed almost two rulings per day during this month. There is, however, a reason for this unusually high number.

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On August 31, 2016, sitting with Justice Rohinton Nariman, Justice Joseph disposed of a total of 207 matters pertaining to land acquisition. These matters were disposed of with a common order:

“The issue, in principle, is covered against the appellant by judgment in Civil Appeal No.8477 of 2016 arising out of Special Leave Petition(Civil)No.8467 of 2015.”

As mentioned above, Joseph J’s least productive days were in October, May, and December.

Year-wise productivity

Thanks to that single day in August, Joseph J’s most productive year was 2016, when he passed 521 rulings. He passed 333 rulings in his penultimate year in office, and 228 rulings in 2018.

Year No. of rulings
2013 38
2014 58
2015 72
2016 521
2017 333
2018 228

Bench-wise distribution of rulings

Over the course of his tenure, Joseph J sat on Division Benches with 27 different judges. He was part of a Constitution Bench of five or more judges just 8 times, and part of a three-judge bench 89 times.

The most rulings he passed were with Justice Rohinton Nariman – 366. He passed 248 rulings sitting with Justice R Banumathi and 129 with Justice C Nagappan. He sat on benches with three Chief Justices of India – Justices RM Lodha, TS Thakur, and JS Khehar.

Case-type distribution of rulings

A majority of cases decided by Justice Joseph were civil appeals; over 85% of his judgments came in this type of case. He also decided 145 criminal appeals and 21 civil writ petitions.

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Notable judgments

Through his judgments delivered as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Kurian Joseph portrayed himself to be a compassionate with a strong sense of duty. He was a vocal critic of the functioning of the Court, even while in office.

In Manoj Narula v.  Union of India, he wrote the following:

“Conscience does not speak to endorse one’s good conduct; but when things go wrong, it always speaks; whether you listen or not. It is a gentle and sweet reminder for rectitude. That is the function of conscience. When things go wrong constitutionally, unless the conscience speaks, it is not good conscience; it will be accused of as numb conscience.”

In Manoj Narula, a Constitution Bench decided whether or not politicians having criminal antecedents should be allowed to be part of the Council of Ministers. While the Court declined to issue any guidelines on the issue, it advised the Prime Minister an the Chief Ministers to not choose such persons as part of their cabinets. Justice Kurian Joseph wrote a separate, concurring judgment in the case.

He was part of the five-judge Constitution Bench that struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act in October 2015. Post retirement, however, he expressed his regret at upholding the Collegium system of judicial appointments.

Along with Justices Rohinton Nariman and UU Lalit, he was part of the majority that deemed the practice of instant Triple Talaq as unconstitutional in Shayara Bano v. Union of India.

Justice Joseph was also part of the Constitution Bench in Jarnail Singh v. Lacchmi Narain Gupta & Ors, wherein the Court held that the judgment in M Nagaraj v. Union of India that deals with reservations in promotions for the SC/ST community need not be referred to a seven-judge Constitution Bench. The Bench held that the judgment in Nagaraj is wrong to the extent that it directs the collection of quantifiable data for providing backwardness of a community.

In Pankajakshi (dead) & LRs v. Chandrika, a Constitution Bench decided whether the Supreme Court can direct a reference to a third judge to resolve the conflict arising out of two conflicting decisions of the High Court on a question of fact. Justice Joseph in a separate, but concurring judgment, called for legislation to govern such situations.

In UP Hindi Sahitya Sammelan v. State of UP, a Constitution Bench of which Joseph J was part, upheld an ordinance brought in to make Urdu the second official language in Uttar Pradesh.

In 2018, Justice Joseph affixed to his judgment a handmade thank-you card penned by a ten-year-old boy, expressing his gratitude to the Court for settling a slew of disputes between his parents before eventually dissolving their marriage.

Justice Joseph was always a vocal critic of the death penalty. In his very last judgment as a judge of the Supreme Court, he called for the need to reexamine the death penalty as a punishment in statute book.