February 21, 2020
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Common Man’s Judge

In an era of judicial activism, Chief Justice ‘designate’ J.S. Verma treads the perfect middle path

Common Man’s Judge

DURING informal working lunches on Wednesdays, when Supreme Court justices let their hair down and discuss policy matters, 63-year-old Jagdish Sharan Verma, is heard stressing on the accountability of public servants. A stance that is reflected in his orders and judgements, as also in his merciless tirade against Government functionaries in open court.

And things won’t look any better for the executive and political establishment when Justice Verma takes over from Chief Justice A.M. Ahmadi on March 27 next year. While their style of functioning may be different—unlike Ahmadi, Verma is loud in court—they have a similar approach, members of the Bar feel. This is not to say that the tough, outspoken judge is a votary of ‘judicial activism’. He is, as Supreme Court lawyer Harish Salve puts it, remarkably free of all ‘-isms’. If the Supreme Court of the ’80s was pro-labour, pro-tenant and somewhat left of centre, in the ’90s it is ‘Centrist’. Justice Verma treads the perfect middle path.

Indeed, although his attitude towards public interest litigation (PIL) is positive, Verma pleads for greater discrimination while admitting such pleas. Far from usurping the functions of the executive, Verma believes in prompting it to work. If at all a change in the current pro-active stand of the apex court is expected, Verma sees it in exercising greater caution in issuing directives to the government. "He is not a crusader like Kuldip Singh; he’s more of a legalist. He will lean in favour of the poor and deprived, but he will not go overboard," observes eminent lawyer and former Union law minister, Shanti Bhushan. "There will be no more jerky orders. Verma may holler at petitioners and lawyers in court, but, ultimately, he delivers a balanced order. Unlike some other judges who deliver orders first and contemplate the effects later," agrees Salve.

Supreme Court lawyer Bharat Sangal sees Verma as the common man’s judge who "hates misuse of power". A stickler for the Constitution and a strong believer in the supremacy of law, Verma has no patience with dilatory politicians or public servants.

He is very strong on judicial review, which he has exercised to devastating effect. "The supervisory control of the judiciary over all other authorities was envisaged in the Constitution; but this function has been neglected in the past two decades. Justice Verma has revived it. In fact, in the hawala and other cases, he added a new dimension to the PIL, using it to uphold the national interest," says Bhushan. His revival of the moribund hawala case earned him the image of a legal Hercules cleaning the Augean stables of Government, although some lawyers say that Verma basically freed the CBI of its fetters and made it do its job.

Verma is all for upholding the dignity of the courts—he once threatened Bal Thackeray with contempt and gave him two days to apologise. Thackeray’s lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, apparently cautioned him against disobeying the judge and produced an affi-davit of apology within 48 hours. Verma has equally strong views on judicial accountability. Three years ago, he drafted a code of moral conduct for judges. Ahmadi reportedly had reservations about the document; it could well be revived next year.

Verma’s former colleagues from Rewa, where he practiced law in the ’50s, say he draws his inspiration from his ‘guru’—Madhya Pradesh Lok Ayukt G. P. Singh, former chief justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Singh once refused to meet the then chief justice P.N. Bhagwati when he came to Jabalpur, merely because he was accompanied by a politician, the then law minister P. Shivshankar.

After reading law at Allahabad University in 1955, he came under the tutelage of Singh, then a lawyer practicing in Satna. When Singh was elevated to the high court in 1965, Verma moved to Jabalpur and in fact, took over his old briefs. But he never appeared before Singh. And now, the cases of his nephew Amit Verma, who practices in the apex court, are never listed before Verma.

In Jabalpur, Verma established a reputation as a studious, sober and sharp lawyer. After only seven years of practice, Verma was elevated to the high court in 1972. His reverence for the Constitution was evident during the Emergency when he was one of the few judges who felt that civil liberties could not be suspended, whatever the exigencies. But from here on, Verma’s progress was slow. He should have been elevated to the Supreme Court in 1986 itself, but was shifted to the Rajasthan High Court as chief justice. It was only in 1989 that he took oath as a Supreme Court justice, long after many of his juniors. Currently, he is India’s longest-serving judge.

Justice Verma’s volubility in court is matched only by his reticence outside it. His social interaction is limited and he is very much a family man. His relationship with the Press is not as antagonistic as Ahmadi’s (who has been known to order the physical ejection of journalists from the visitor’s gallery), but hardly warm. He prefers journalists to quote strictly from court records—the hawala case hearings were held in-camera. But his aversion to newsmen does not extend to newspapers, which he reads regularly and, according to lawyers, is influ-enced by what he reads. And of course, he scrutinises his briefs minutely.

Verma doesn’t mince words and his off-the-cuff remarks are a constant delight to legal scribes. In the Allahabad High Court contempt case, Verma ticked off the Allah-abad University Students’ Union president for his unseemly behaviour during the Uttar Pradesh bandh protesting quotas for OBCs: "Dimaag thikaney aa jayega. Goondagardi kartey ho? (You will be set right. You dare behave like hooligans?)" Mercifully, Verma appears to take the law far more seriously than he takes himself. Aware that people take note of his loquacity in court, he once asked Ashok Desai how long his submission would take. "Four hours," replied Desai. "Then this matter will take the whole day because I am also going to talk," the judge said cheerfully.

Not surprisingly, the legal community has greeted Law Minister Ramakant Khalap’s statement on Verma becoming the next Chief Justice with approval. One lawyer says it all: "There will be continuity."


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