Supreme Court must heed Attorney General KK Venugopal’s objection to punishing advocate Prashant Bhushan for two tweets that the court held contemptuous. Venugopal, counting on the experience of several decades, said nine judges have spoken of judicial corruption, besides broaching this issue himself in 1987. Venugopal also has reason to be displeased with the SC registry sidestepping his consent and due process while entertaining a lawyer’s contempt petition on Bhushan’s tweets, as the rules on contempt proceedings demand.
Retired SC judges have flagged both the court’s haste amid a raging pandemic when only virtual courts are functioning, and the desirability of a larger SC bench to hear such weighty matters. It is hard to miss that judges are at once aggrieved party and jury here. This is a fundamental infirmity in the Contempt of Court Act because SC is being forced to play judge in its own cause. This is why provisions like “scandalising” the court, liable to be broadly interpreted and unhelpful for bonafide criticism, have been scrapped elsewhere.
Contempt is a sword SC should wield effectively against those, including governments, not implementing its orders. As for criticism, SC must trust its exemplary work to override the barbs of critics. Arguably, greater danger to the judiciary’s reputation and of destabilisation lies in Bhushan being made an example over two tweets rather than any danger posed by the tweets themselves. The verdict and Bhushan sticking to his guns with a powerful statement quoting Gandhi have gained wide attention, even internationally. Practices like judges securing sinecures immediately after retirement despite government being the largest litigant call for vigorous public debate, at the very least. Should citizens stop criticising this practice and its implications for fear of attracting contempt? The highest court of the land must function with greater circumspection.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.