New Delhi, July 1: The Supreme Court collegium, which recommends elevation of advocates as high court judges, has not met for over two months on account of the Covid pandemic, deepening the vacancy crisis in the higher judiciary.

The collegium is headed by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and has the four top judges of the apex court as its members — Justices N.V. Ramana, Arun Mishra, R.F. Nariman and R. Banumathi.

Sources in the Supreme Court told ThePrint there are 120 proposals, including over a dozen returned this year by the Centre for reconsideration, pending with the collegium for its approval.

The last meeting attended by the collegium was on 20 April when the members met to clear names of lawyers to be elevated as judges in Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh high courts. A resolution was also passed that day to approve three additional judges in Calcutta High Court as permanent.

Thereafter, only two resolutions were cleared through circulation — 27 April and 12 May. While the first pertained to transfer of a judge from Bombay to Kerala High Court, the other was to elevate a trial court judge in Kerala.

Sources said both the resolutions did not require much deliberations among the collegium members and were, therefore, cleared through circulation.

The judiciary and the Centre have been at loggerheads over judicial appointments, with both blaming the other for the around 40 per cent vacancy in the high courts. 

Of the 1,079 sanctioned strength, there are 388 vacancies in 25 high courts. Allahabad is short of 57 judges, Calcutta 34 and Delhi 28, according to data from ministry of law and justice.

In a suo motu cognisance case registered in December last year, a bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K.M. Joseph had noted in its order that 213 names cleared for elevation were pending with the government. It even questioned the government’s failure to notify the names on which there was unanimity between the collegium and government, saying such appointments should be done in six months. However, sources said, the direction hasn’t been complied with.

In response, the government attacked the judiciary for not sending proposals for appointment of high court judges on time. Attorney General K.K. Venugopal submitted in February this year before the bench that the government completes the process of clearing a recommendation in an average of 127 days, but the collegium takes an average of 119 days.

Physical collegium meetings stopped after the Centre announced the lockdown on 24 March. Additionally, the collegium dispensed with personal interaction with those whose names were recommended for high courts. 

In a move to adhere to the social distance guidelines, the top court resorted to digital hearings of cases. 

The judges had met on 5 March to approve the transfer of Justice Alok Singh from Uttarakhand to Allahabad High Court.

Between this date and 20 April, the collegium passed 6 resolutions through circulation.

Three pertained to confirmation of additional judges in Calcutta (two) and Chhattisgarh (one) high courts. The remaining three resolutions were on the appointment of chief justices to Orissa, Bombay and Meghalaya high courts. None of them related to fresh elevations of lawyers as high court judges.

When asked if the meetings can be held through video-conference, an SC judge said it was not possible.

“Collegium meetings involve detailed discussions on the recommendations. Inputs received from the government, which also include the sensitive Intelligence Bureau reports, are also discussed at length. These matters cannot be mulled over on video-conference calls,” said the judge, who didn’t want to be named.

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