Supreme Court of India (Source: Supreme Court website)

India's Top Judge Faces Challenge Amid New Judicial Crisis

(Bloomberg) -- India’s opposition parties are seeking the impeachment of the country’s chief justice over allegations he misused his authority to influence the outcome of politically-sensitive cases.

The unprecedented action follows the move by four Supreme Court judges to go public with their concerns over the conduct of Chief Justice Dipak Misra. Representatives of seven opposition parties said Misra had chosen to send sensitive matters to particular judges "with the likely intent to influence the outcome."

"The chief justice has not asserted the independence of the judiciary in the face of interference from the executive," Kapil Sibal, a lawmaker from the Congress Party, said at a media conference in New Delhi. He has "abused his position and this amounts to misbehavior."

This is the first time opposition parties have moved to impeach a chief justice. The motion is now with the country’s vice president, Venkaiah Naidu, who is also chairman of the upper house, or Rajya Sabha. He was previously a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling coalition.

Misra is due to retire on Oct. 2 It is unclear whether Naidu will accept the motion -- if he does, a three-member panel will be established to investigate the allegations and their findings will have to be voted on in both houses with a two-thirds majority.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the allegations against the judge had been settled by judicial orders or by precedent. "It is an attempt to intimidate a judge and send a message to other judges, that if you don’t agree with us, fifty MPs are enough for a revenge action," Jaitley wrote on Facebook on Friday.

Judicial Crisis

The motion to remove the chief justice will not succeed because it will be difficult to prove the charges and Modi controls the lower house of parliament, according to Subhash Kashyap, a former secretary general of the lower house and constitutional expert.

"It is extremely -- 99.99 percent -- unlikely to be passed," Kashyap said. "The intention seems to be only to embarrass the judiciary and lower its prestige and to embarrass the ruling party."

The move is the latest crisis for India’s judiciary. On Jan. 12, four senior Supreme Court judges spoke out against the chief justice in an unprecedented rift with the country’s top judge.

"We were hoping that the anguish of the judges would be addressed by the chief justice," Sibal said. "More than three months have passed, nothing has changed."

Misra heads important benches of the Supreme Court, including those hearing a challenge to Modi’s biometric identification program, Aadhaar, and the communally-sensitive Ayodhya land dispute, where the ruling party has promised to build a grand temple.

Allegations leveled by the opposition parliamentarians relate to the chief justice stalling a case for investigation into a judicial corruption in which he himself could have come under scrutiny. He’s also accused of acquiring land illegally and surrendering it only after he was appointed as a top court judge.

"Impeachment of a sitting chief justice of the Supreme Court has never been sought before," said Arvind Datar, senior lawyer and constitutional expert. "The Parliament will have to decide on this depending on how many members of have backed the motion."

Judge’s Death

Earlier this week, India’s top court refused to order an investigation into the death of the judge who was hearing murder charges against Amit Shah, Modi’s right hand man and the head of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The trial court judge B.H. Loya, 48, died after a cardiac arrest in December 2014, according to official records. Shah was eventually discharged on all counts -- including abduction and murder -- by a new judge following Loya’s death.

But the manner of Loya’s death became national headlines in November after an Indian magazine reported Loya’s family had expressed suspicion that he’d died an unnatural death. Their concerns prompted lawyers, activists and politicians to approach the court seeking an independent probe into the death.

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