New Delhi, May 19: The Modi government has notified Karnataka judicial officer P. Krishna Bhat’s appointment as a high court judge, more than three-and-a-half-years after the Supreme Court collegium first approved his elevation.

The notification clearing his name breaks the deadlock between the top court and the government, which had held back Bhat’s elevation since 2016 in light of a sexual harassment complaint against him from a woman judge, The Print reported.

Bhat’s appointment was finalised through a notification issued by the Union Ministry of Law and Justice Monday night. The notification says Bhat will be appointed as an additional judge of the Karnataka High Court for a period of two years from the date he assumes charge. 

The appointment appears to have come through in the wake of a second inquiry “exonerating Bhat of all charges”. The collegium had stated in its latest recommendation to the central government, sent in October last year, that the inquiry had found Bhat innocent.

Bhat’s elevation has gained a lot of attention, especially since a Supreme Court judge questioned the Karnataka High Court chief justice’s decision to launch a probe against Bhat at the central government’s instance — after the top court collegium had recommended his elevation.

In March 2018, Justice J. Chelameswar (now retired) wrote a strongly-worded letter to the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, objecting to Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad directly asking the Karnataka High Court chief justice to probe the allegations against Bhat, bypassing the CJI. 

Bhat’s case is also notable because the government refused to act upon the collegium’s recommendation reiterating its resolution on the judge. This, even though the memorandum of procedure, which dictates the process for judicial appointments, states that the government must process a case once the collegium had reiterated its recommendation.

The collegium first recommended Bhat’s elevation to the Karnataka High Court in August 2016. It then passed two more resolutions in his favour. The latest one was on 15 October 2019, when the collegium went to the extent of directing the central government to process Bhat’s appointment “most expeditiously.” Yet, the government took seven months to do it, even as it cleared other files sent along with that of Bhat.

Bhat became a centre of controversy when his colleague M.S. Shashikala — a first-class judicial magistrate — filed a complaint against him in 2016, around the time the Karnataka High Court collegium began to consider his elevation as a judge in the court. 

In letters written to the Supreme Court and the central government, Shashikala alleged Bhat took “undue advantage” of the fact that she was unmarried, and repeatedly forced her to visit his home “during late night hours”.

An investigation by the then Karnataka High Court Chief Justice S.K. Mukherjee concluded that the complaint was an attempt to “malign” Bhat because, as a district and sessions judge in 2014, he had sent a report on her alleged “misconduct” to the high court.

The Supreme Court collegium stood by its recommendation and passed another resolution in his favour on 6 April 2017. However, the government subsequently wrote directly to the Karnataka High Court Chief Justice to hold an inquiry.

In his letter, Justice Chelameswar objected to this, saying he could not recollect any other instance where the executive had bypassed the Supreme Court collegium regarding an elevation recommendation and sought a report from a high court chief justice. He insisted the allegations against the judge had already been held to be false.

As the government returned Bhat’s file in November 2018, calling the earlier enquiry “discreet” and not in accordance with the top court’s sexual harassment guidelines in the Vishaka case, a three-judge probe panel was constituted in the high court. This panel submitted its report in December 2018 and the same was relied upon by the collegium to resend Bhat’s file last October.

Justice Chelameswar told ThePrint that Bhat’s appointment “vindicated his stand”. “I stood for him and the procedure to protect the institution’s independence,” he added.

Shashikala, however, claims Bhat never got a clean chit. ThePrint spoke to her brother, Shiv Shankar, who quoted media reports as saying that the inquiry panel never acquitted him.  Shashikala, he said, was denied copies of the report as well as Bhat’s statement before the probe panel.

“According to news reports, two of the three judges favoured my sister. Only one judge said the charges were false. How can the appointing authority bypass the report? The findings call for a further probe into the matter,” he added. 

Shankar said they have mailed the President, the Chief Justice of India and the Union law minister demanding a copy of the report. “We want to know on what basis he has been absolved. How can the authorities elevate him when the majority found merit in my sister’s complaint, as was reported by the media?” he added.

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