The ongoing turf-war between the judiciary and the executive over the appointment of judges in the higher judiciary today witnessed an open showdown in the Supreme Court with the Centre taking the Collegium head on for recommending few names to fill up huge vacancies in the high courts.
The apex court also hit out at the Centre for keeping the names recommended by the Collegium pending.
"Tell us, how many names (recommended by the Collegium) are pending with you," a bench comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta asked Attorney General of India KK Venugopal.
When the AG said "I will have to find out", the bench retorted "when it comes to the government, you say 'we will find out'".
The strong remarks by the bench came after Venugopal said though the court was dealing with a matter relating to the vacancy of judges in the high courts of Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura, the fact was that the Collegium has been recommending only three names for high courts where the vacancy was for 40 judges.
"The Collegium will have to see the broad picture and recommend more names," the AG said, adding, "some high courts have 40 vacancies and recommendation of the Collegium is only for three. And the government is being told that we are tardy in filing up the vacancy".
"If there is no Collegium recommendation, nothing can be done," Venugopal said.
The bench then reminded the government that they have to make the appointments.
The Collegium had on April 19 recommended to the Centre for appointing of Justice M Yaqoob Mir and Justice Ramalingam Sudhakar as the chief justices of the Meghalaya High Court and Manipur High Court respectively, which have not yet been cleared.
During the hearing, Venugopal said the issues related to Justice Sudhakar and Justice Yaqoob Mir would be dealt with and orders would be issued "shortly".
"What shortly? 'Shortly' could be three months," the bench reacted.
On April 17, while hearing a petition filed by a man seeking transfer of his case from Manipur High Court to Gauhati High Court, the apex court had noted that the situation in the high courts in North-East states like Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura was "critical" due to the vacancy of judges there.
It had noted that Manipur High Court had only two judges against a sanctioned strength of seven, Meghalaya High Court had one judge against the sanctioned strength of four, while Tripura High Court had two judges against sanctioned strength of four.
The top court's remarks assume significance as the Centre, after almost three months of Collegium's recommendation, returned for reconsideration the file of Uttarakhand High Court Chief Justice KM Joseph for elevation as an apex court judge. The AG during his arguments also referred to the Collegium resolution of March 6 relating to the appointment of Justice Songkhupchung Serto, an additional judge of Manipur High Court who was functioning on transfer in the Gauhati High Court, as a permanent judge.
In this resolution, the Collegium had recommended that Justice Serto be appointed as a permanent judge of the Manipur High Court and would continue to function in Gauhati High Court.
Venugopal referred to the resolution and said it was "very strange" that Justice Serto should continue to function from the Gauhati High Court.
"That time, only two judges were there in Manipur High Court. It should not have been said that he (Justice Serto) would continue in Gauhati High Court. It was necessary to bring him back to Manipur High Court," he said.
To this, the bench observed, "may be the Collegium does not want to get him back to Manipur. We do not know".
The court then told the AG that it was not only a problem in the Manipur High Court as the situation was similar in the high courts of Meghalaya and Tripura.
Venugopal said he had inquired about Manipur High Court and once Justice Sudhakar goes there, the high court would have three judges and problem will be solved.
"People from the Northeast, what are they supposed to do? They come to Delhi before us, to say that please transfer our case to other high courts. They spend money for this," the bench observed.
The AG then said the Collegium should recommend more names for filing up the vacancies.
When Venugopal said the recommendation related to Justice Mir for Meghalaya High Court was being processed, the bench said, "once the chief justice goes there, the chief justice and the other judge may recommend somebody who can be made the third judge there".
The bench asked the Attorney General to file an affidavit in 10 days regarding the vacancies in high courts of Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura.