April 20, 2018 / 10:23 AM / 7 months ago

Indian opposition moves to impeach chief justice

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s opposition parties launched an unprecedented bid to impeach the country’s top judge on Friday, submitting a motion accusing him of failing to protect the independence of the judiciary from executive interference among other charges.

The petition, backed by lawmakers from seven parties, raised five charges against Chief Justice Dipak Misra, including an accusation he arbitrarily used his power to allot sensitive cases and questioning his conduct in the acquisition of land.

Misra came under a cloud in January when the four next highest-ranking judges in the Supreme Court criticized his distribution of cases to judges and raised concerns about judicial appointments.

The judges said then that the issues involving the Supreme Court’s administration were serious enough to prompt them take the unprecedented step of going public with their criticism.

Misra was appointed in August and is due to retire in October, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65.

Misra’s office told reporters he would not be making any comment on the issue.

The petition to impeach him for “acts of misbehavior” and misuse of authority was signed by 64 serving members of the upper house of parliament.

They belonged to the main opposition Congress Party, the Communist Party of India and Samajwadi Party - a powerful regional party in the key northern state of Uttar Pradesh - and four other parties.

Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, a former senior minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government who also chairs the upper house, must now decide whether the petition merits debate.

“We were hoping that the anguish of the judges as reflected in their statements to the press would be addressed,” senior Congress party leader Kapil Sibal, a senior lawyer himself, told reporters.

But since the chief justice has failed to set his house in order even after three months, “as representatives of the people, we are entitled to hold the chief justice accountable,” Sibal said.

“Democracy can thrive only when our judiciary stands firm, independent of the executive,” he added.

Under the constitution, a Supreme Court judge can be removed for proven misbehavior or incapacity only by an order of the president after winning a majority in both houses of parliament and after obtaining at least two-thirds of votes from the house members in the same session.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies have a comfortable majority in the lower house, but not in the upper house.

On Thursday, Misra headed a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court that dismissed petitions calling for an investigation into the death of a lower court judge in 2014 when he was presiding over a case against a top political aide to Modi.

Amit Shah, president of the BJP, had been accused of ordering extra judicial killings in 2005 while serving as home minister in the western state of Gujarat.

Shah was discharged by the judge who took over the case after the death of Judge B. Loya, having decided there was no case against the BJP president.

Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel

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