The plea by the Election Commission of India against media reportage of oral remarks made by Madras High Court while hearing a case, is far-fetched, the Supreme Court said on Monday (Chief Election Commissioner of India v. MR Vijayabhaskar).
The Court was hearing an appeal by ECI against the oral observations made by Madras High Court that the ECI is singularly responsible for the COVID-19 situation in India.
Media should be able to report everything to create accountability and the dialogue in court is often to create an umbrella of discussion, the top court stated.
A Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah also made it clear that it cannot interfere with the oral observations made by High Courts, saying that such dialogue between Bar and Bench while hearing cases is an essential facet of the judicial process.
“The discussions that take place are of importance and are in public interest. It’s not a monologue that one person will speak and then judges will speak,” said Justice Chandrachud.
Such dialogues and reporting of such dialogues by media create accountability, the Court said while underscoring that anything to the contrary could be seen as affecting independence of High Courts.
“We have to protect the judicial sanctity of the process. We have to make sure that High Court judges and chief justices are independent to make views. We have to make sure that media reports everything that happens in court so that we judges conduct proceedings with dignity,” the Court said.
Any order passed in this regard by top court could affect the morale of High Courts, the apex court added.
“We are looking at this from a long term and impact on functioning of High Courts. We don’t want to demoralise our High Courts. They are vital pillars of our democracy. Things are often said in an open dialogue between bar and bench,” the Court added.
The Court was hearing a plea against the oral observations made by Madras High Court that the ECI is singularly responsible for the COVID-19 situation in India and that it should probably be put on murder charges for failing to ensure compliance of COVID-19 protocol during election rallies.
The plea was an appeal against an April 30 order of Madras High Court which had refused to entertain ECI’s petition in this regard.
The ECI in its plea before Madras High Court had sought directions to be issued to media houses to confine their reports to observations recorded in orders or judgments and to refrain from reporting on oral observations made during court proceedings in the case concerning COVID protocol for vote counting in Tamil Nadu.
Justice Chandrachud clarified that he would not have made such a remark like the Madras High Court did.
“Speaking for myself, I would not have used the words of Madras High Court,” he said.
However, many times judges make oral observations in larger public interest so as to ensure that things are set right, the Bench added.
“Sometimes we are harsh because we want to see in larger public interest something is done. After a series of orders, the High Court may be anguished. Look at Gujarat; 18 people died due to fire in (a) Covid ward and this in spite of series of orders where fire NOC is required,” said Justice Shah
The Court also said that it is well aware that currently electronic and social media reports court proceedings.
“I am sure what are we saying is being reported now. But to contain what we want to ask or say in court just because of this will not do justice to the judicial process,” the Court underscored.
It eventually proceeded to reserve its order in the matter.
“We will try and post it this week for orders. But tell ECI that the intention is not to run down an institution. In our order, we will clarify that institutions have to be strengthened,” remarked Justice Chandrachud.
Senior Advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, appearing for the Election Commission, said that the poll body was “pained” by the observations of the Madras High Court.
“Most of the judges in judiciary is conscious, but there are judges who say a lot of things which is not related to the case. There is no dialogue; its just a conclusion that we are murderers,” said Dwivedi.
Further ECI submitted that it does not have the staff to restrict people who take part in a rally by Prime Minister or a Chief Minister.
“There is an assumption that ECI has responsibility for all of this. COVID management is not the prerogative of Election Commission of India. Harsh criticism are also welcome but somewhere a line has to be drawn,” submitted Dwivedi.
We are often pilloried by one party or someone else and then its said we should face murder charges, he added.
“We have a serious objection to the observation. It led to serious discussion on electronic media that we are murderers,” Dwivedi maintained.
The plea by ECI stated that the Madras High Court being an independent constitutional authority made serious allegations of murder on another independent constitutional authority without any basis, which has ultimately dented both the institutions.
The poll body maintained that the appeal is against the uncalled for, blatantly disparaging and derogatory remarks made by Madras High Court.
“You are the only institution that is responsible for the situation today. No action against political parties taking rallies despite every order of the Court. Your election commission should be put up on murder charges probably!” the Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee had remarked on April 26.
The High Court had made the remark while hearing a petition by AIADMK’s R Vijayabhaskar raising concerns over whether adequate facilities are in place to ensure COVID-19 protocol during vote counting at the Karur constituency, where about 77 candidates are contesting the elections.
The ECI had approached the High Court itself against the said remark while also seeking directions to the media against sensationalising news and reporting on oral observations made by the Court.
However, the Bench headed by Justice Banerjee had refused to entertain the same stating that the “post mortem” on such aspects can wait and that the focus, for now, would be on the measures that can be put in place for COVID-19 management in the State.
The appeal before the Supreme Court claimed that consequent to the said observation made by the Division Bench of the High Court against the ECI, a dangerous trend has started wherein a criminal complaint has been made against a Deputy Election Commissioner in connection with the “murder” comment of the High Court.
The oral observations do not find any mention in the order passed by the High Court, the plea before top court said.
The High Court being a Constitutional court of first record ought not have made the said oral observation levelling such serious allegation against ECI without any proof, it was submitted.
The plea also highlighted how the Madras High Court Friday refused to entertain its petition in this regard.
The remark by High Court has caused serious damage to the reputation of the ECI which was built over the years, it alleged.
The impact, the poll body submitted, is of such magnitude that people in the farthest corners of the country where no elections were held in the recent past are pinning the blame of COVID infection on the ECI.
The Supreme Court however maintained on Monday that it cannot dilute the hallmark of judicial process.
“We will strike a balance to maintain the independence of our high courts while taking your concerns into account,” the Bench said.