The Supreme Court Collegium’s sudden move to shift Chief Justice Vijaya Kamalesh Tahilramani of the Madras High Court, one of the three Chartered High Courts of the nation (the other two are the Bombay and the Calcutta High Courts) to the relatively new and much smaller Meghalaya High Court, has shaken the confidence of the Bench, the Bar and the litigant public in Tamil Nadu. Established under the Indian High Court Act of 1861 along with the Bombay and the Calcutta High Courts, the Madras High Court has a sanctioned strength of 75 judges.

The Meghalaya High Court, established in 2013, has a strength of three judges. The Collegium wants Justice AK Mittal, Chief Justice of the Meghalaya High Court, to take over as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. Justice Tahilramani is the senior-most among High Court Chief justices in India. She assumed office as a judge of the Bombay High Court in June 2001 and served as its Acting Chief Justice thrice between 2015 and 2017.

Due to retire on 2 October 2020, she was transferred to the Madras High Court in August 2018 to take over as its Chief Justice. To transfer her from one of the Chartered High Courts to one of the smallest High Courts in the country is nothing but punishment and humiliation, that too at the fag end of her distinguished career. She chose to put in her papers. Almost all judges of the Madras High Court requested her to reconsider her decision to resign. She was resolute in her decision to quit. At a dinner hosted by six judges of the Madras High Court who were made permanent recently and attended by all fellow judges, Justice Tahilramani said, “My conscience is clear. I will be leaving the institution with the satisfaction of having performed well.”

A representation made by a group of more than 100 lawyers practising in the Madras High Court to the Supreme Court against this kind of arbitrary transfer and its impact on the independence of the judiciary fell on deaf ears. Whimsical transfers cannot be justified on the principle of administrative interests. A memorandum submitted to the Supreme Court by the Madras High Court lawyers said that any transfer of judge should meet with an element of fairness, “but it is noticed, of late, that there appears to be no norms in the matter of transfer of judges.” There should be checks and balances in the matters of administration of the judiciary. The style of functioning of the Collegium leaves much to be desired. High Courts have their primacy of position in the constitutional scheme of things but they are treated as subordinates by the Collegium.

To a representation by Justice Tahilramani requesting reconsideration of her transfer, the Collegium said it had taken into consideration all relevant factors. “On reconsideration, the Collegium is of the considered view that it is not possible to accede to her request.”