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The circus has left town: Any given Katju day, Court Witnessed

Katju: Directing the circus
Katju: Directing the circus

When an uncharacteristically subdued Katju rose from the Bench in the Chief’s Court for the last time on Monday, one half of the bar and the media sighed wistfully and the other half sighed with relief. One lot would miss the mayhem, humour, and quotability of the average Katju day in the Supreme Court. The other lot would be grateful for never having to go through the mayhem, humour, and quotability of the average Katju day in the Supreme Court.

The average Katju day for a lawyer, litigant, court-master and more often than not, his Brother/Sister on the Bench with him, could be either utterly invigorating or extremely traumatic. The only thing you could be utterly assured of was total unpredictability.

On a non-miscellaneous day, formally set aside for detailed final hearings on the merits of your case, you could start your arguments on say, a criminal appeal, get two sentences in and be stopped by a question of what the offence was?

A murder, you say.

What was the High Court’s decision you are asked.


What was the Trial Court’s decision you are asked.


Suddenly thunder!

“Two courts have delivered concurring judgements and you want to file appeals in the Supreme Court! It is because of lawyers like you that the Supreme Court is burdened with 50,000 cases still pending and there is no way to clear all of them if you keep filing appeals like this.”

But my Lord, you protest, feeling like you’ve suddenly committed a crime far greater in gravity than your unfortunate client, there’s some doubt in the evidence.

He flips to the page in the paper book, you read out a couple of lines, and begin to say something but...

“There’s nothing in this. The High Court’s already considered this and convicted him. Likhiye (Take down please)” beckoning to the court-master, “This appeal has been filed against the judgement of the ...”

You protest once more hoping against hope.

“This is intolerable!” the sound ricochets off every wall in the courtroom and lands in your ear deafening you into silence. “You lawyers must know when to keep quiet! Unfortunately the Constitution says that the judge will have the last word and not the lawyer. Jaaiye aap Parliament jaake Constitution ko amend keejiye ki jo bhi vakeel kahega woh hi judgment mein likha jaayega!” (Get elected to Parliament and have the Constitution amended so that whatever the lawyer says becomes law)

Amid the general smug laughter of other lawyers and interns, you figure that this is probably not your day, and as far as Katju is concerned, you (and not even your client!) are the Flanders Pigeon Murderer!

The Katju playbook

There are many variations on that main theme.

If you are a tenant hoping to avoid eviction, Katju’s idea of generosity was to give you six months to vacate the premises. If you stood convicted of an offence and filed an appeal, the best you could hope for a mitigation of the sentence to the period actually undergone.

Of course it was not all rough and ready justice dealt out with the finesse of a sawn-off shotgun.

From Katju would fall the occasional Mirza Ghalib couplets, snippets of Urdu and Persian poetry, apart from Sanskrit aphorisms and Hindi kahavat (popular sayings) on life and the law. Many of these can be found quoted in Katju’s judgments as well, and these, to use an oft used line of his “have been set out in the impugned judgment[s] and hence we are not repeating the same here except wherever necessary.”

For a judge who paid obeisance to the Constitution on an hourly basis, Katju paid little heed to the Constitutional declaration that English be the language of the Supreme Court. He always found it fit to slip into Hindi or Urdu, or if he was in a particularly good mood and a counsel from the South of the river Cauvery appeared, cringe-inducing Tamil that left native speakers of the language asking for forgiveness from Thiruvalluvar’s spirit.

Comedic knack

Humour in Katju’s court was never far off. A clever observation on government officers in litigation, an anecdote about a long-winded lawyer in the Allahabad High Court,and many, many jibes about the kind of fees being charged by senior counsel appearing in the Supreme Court. And yes, the courtroom would genuinely be laughing with him than at him. The laughter was sometimes exuberant, sometimes ironic and sometimes sarcastic, never malicious, or mean spirited.

His eyebrows would knit in furious concentration as he listened to counsel or read through the paper-book, draw angrily together as he delivered another lecture on legal ethics or the tendency of lawyers to turn the Supreme Court into just another appellate court, then they would fly apart as he remembered an apt quote from a Sanskrit text or a Ghalib couplet to describe the situation leaving the courtroom in peals of laughter.

And before you knew it, he’d be done with the thirty matters listed on his Board for the day! The Display Board for Court No 6 would resemble the scoreboard at a T20 as the numbers ratcheted up at a dizzying pace.

In the first few days of him being the presiding Judge on the Bench, one would see lawyers hurtle furiously through the corridors of the Supreme Court trying to reach his court by the time their case was called up for the second and last time. By 11.30! Eventually, most figured that turning up in his Court first thing in the morning was far less stressful with the added bonus of enjoying the circus first thing in the morning.

Most senior advocates disapproved of this circus. Some expressed their disapproval in and out of court, others quietly refused to accept briefs which involved appearing in his court. Much of their criticism was entirely valid, but Katju did not believe in craving their approval by ceasing to be his usual, larger-than-life self.

Katju’s unpredictability on the Bench manifests itself in a hugely contradictory judicial legacy left behind in his judgments. On the one hand he could seem insensitive and thoughtless about the words he used in the judgments (“keep”) but could write an extra-ordinarily sensitive judgment about euthanasia. While constantly running down PILs and the tendency for courts to “encroach the Executive’s domain”, he would also pass directions and monitor such issues as the rehabilitation of rescued sex workers.

It is this contradictory Janus-like nature of Katju that perhaps divides opinion so sharply in the Supreme Court.

Life post Katju

The Supreme Court’s a quieter place these days. The Display Board moves at a sedate pace relentlessly ticking off matters gradually over the course of a day or staying put at a long-winded final disposal matter stretching over weeks. Court No. 6, which he presided over for the better part of the last 18 months, is far less crowded and seems almost... tranquil.

Interns now follow around their seniors with greater diligence and can be found nodding off in the visitors sections of various courtrooms. The Supreme Court press corps have to be more creative for their headlines.

The circus has left town.

Court Witness is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and now tweets @courtwitness1.

Court Witness’ previous postcards:

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