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Strength in numbers: On judge vacancies

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Meanings are given in Bold

The list of alarming numbers and figures relating to the depleting ( use up the supply or resources of ; Spend ) numbers in India’s higher judiciary has a new addition. On December 10, the Supreme Court of India said that 213 names recommended for appointment to various High Courts are pending with the government. Data show that 38% of all sanctioned ( give official permission or approval for (an action)) posts for High Court judges are lying vacant as of December 1, with the High Courts of some States including Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan functioning at below half their actual capacity.

The court has fixed a time period of six months to appoint as judges at least those whose names the Supreme Court collegium ( an advisory or administrative board), the High Courts and the Government have agreed upon. At each level of the appointment process of judges to the higher judiciary, prior to the names reaching the Prime Minister and President for final approval, there are time periods specified. The Memorandum ( a written message in business or diplomacy)  of Procedure states that appointments should be initiated at least six months before a vacancy arises and six weeks of time is then specified for the State to send the recommendation to the Union Law Minister, after which the brief is to be sent to the Supreme Court collegium in four weeks.

Once the collegium clears the names, the Law Ministry has to put up the recommendation to the Prime Minister in three weeks who will in turn advise the President. Thereafter no time limit is prescribed ( recommend (a substance or action) as something beneficial) and the process, seemingly ( so as to give the impression of having a certain quality; apparently), comes to a standstill ( a situation or condition in which there is no movement or activity at all).

The Supreme Court’s recommendation now of a time limit to these appointments is welcome. It is no secret perhaps, that the equation between the court and the Union Government has been strained ( showing signs of nervous tension or tiredness) by the former’s decision to strike down as unconstitutional in 2015 the move to set up a National Judicial Appointments Commission which would have been responsible for appointments and transfers to the higher judiciary in place of the Supreme Court collegium.

Since then, reports of delays in appointments have become increasingly commonplace, with both sides testy ( easily irritated; impatient and somewhat bad-tempered) over procedure. Last week, the same Bench of the Supreme Court chastised ( Scold ; thrash) the government for not acting on another set of nominations on which the government had sent back objections. If the collegium reiterates ( say something again or a number of times, typically for emphasis or clarity)  the names, the court said, the government has no option but to appoint the judges. Such standoffs ( a deadlock between two equally matched opponents in a dispute or conflict)  are now inevitable ( certain to happen; unavoidable).

As grievous ( (of something bad) very severe or serious) as it is for the government to disrupt ( interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem) the process through delays, it is for the court to take an increasingly firm hand to ensure that the collegium system that it fought so hard to protect, despite flaws, actually functions effectively. Doing so would be in its best interests. Vacancies in the higher judiciary threaten every aspect of the justice delivery system and it is the courts, and very seldom ( not often; rarely) the government, that always take the blame for any shortfall in justice.

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