A landmark bill to overturn the collegium system was today a step short of becoming the law with the Lok Sabha approving it amid government's assertion that the measure was aimed at ensuring that only meritorious people are selected as judges to the higher courts.
The National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, 2014 was passed by voice vote along with one official amendment.
Along with it, the 99th Constitution Amendment Bill, which will give Constitutional status to the proposed Commission, was passed by 367 in favour and nil against.
Replying to the debate on the bills, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the proposed law does not impact upon the independence of the judiciary. He said the new law will provide for wider consultations for appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and High Courts. "We are for maintaining the sanctity of the judiciary... We have said this House respects independence of judiciary. That should be assuring," he said, allaying apprehensions that new law would curb the independence of judiciary.
Seeking support of all parties, he said, "Let the message go that this House is one for maintaining dignity of the judiciary." Suggesting that the existing collegium system of judges appointing judges had flaws, the Minister said many good judges could not make to the Supreme Court.
Under the new law where a Commission will decide appointment of judges to Supreme Court and High Courts, seniority along with "ability" and "merit" will be considered for elevation, Prasad said.
Accepting a major demand of Congress, Prasad moved an official amendment saying that if the President returns the recommendation of the Commission, the panel will not have to return the recommendation for reconsideration "unanimously".
The amendment makes it clear that if the recommendation is returned to President without a unanimous recommendation, the candidate will have to be appointed. He defended the "veto" power of any two members, saying that the provision is part of the present collegium system also.
The Law Minister said "we have made consultations more meaningful." He rejected demands for a state-level judicial appointment commission, saying Article 124 makes it clear that only the President can appoint judges to Supreme Court and the 24 High Courts and it will be vulnerable to withstand scrutiny.
Justifying the strength of the Commission to be six in the face of questions over the figure, he said the number has been decided on the basis of sum and substance of the recommendations of various commissions which have looked into the utility of the collegium system and earlier bills.
He said MPs should trust the "collective wisdom" of the commission to elect the best of people from among judges and lawyers. He said he would work towards creation of a data bank of lawyers and judges whose names could be recommended for elevation by the commission.
After any Constitutional amendment bill gets Parliamentary nod, it is sent to all the states and 50 per cent of the state legislatures have to ratify it. The process could take up to eight months. After ratification, the government sends it to the President for his approval.
The practice of judges appointing judges started after 1993, replacing the system of government picking judges for higher judiciary comprising the Supreme Court and high courts.
The move to set aside the 1993 Supreme Court judgement, which led to the collegium system, requires a Constitutional amendment.
An earlier effort by the NDA-I government in 2003 to replace the collegium system met with no success. The then NDA government had introduced a Constitution amendment bill but Lok Sabha was dissolved when the bill was before a Standing Committee. The UPA II had also brought a similar bill, but it lapsed.