The Supreme Court on Friday stayed the promotion of 68 Gujarat lower judicial officers, including Surat Chief Judicial Magistrate Harish Hasmukhbhai Varma who had convicted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case.
A bench comprising Justices M R Shah and C T Ravikumar said the promotion of the judicial officers was in violation of the Gujarat State Judicial Service Rules 2005, amended in 2011, which states that promotions must be made on principle of merit-cum-seniority and on passing a suitability test.
"We are more than satisfied that the impugned list issued by the high court and the subsequent order issued by the state government granting promotion to district judges are illegal and contrary to the decision of this court.The same are, therefore, not sustainable," the bench said.
"We stay the implementation of the promotion list. Respective promotees are sent to their original post which they were holding prior to their promotion," it said.
The top court passed an interim order staying the promotions and directed that the matter be heard by an appropriate bench as Justice Shah is retiring on May 15.
The top court was hearing a plea of senior civil judge cadre officers, Ravikumar Maheta and Sachin Prataprai Mehta, challenging the selection of the 68 judicial officers to the higher cadre of district judges.
Varma, the CJM of Surat, is one of the 68 officers of the district lower judiciary whose promotion has also been challenged by Maheta and Mehta, presently working as undersecretary in the legal department of the Gujarat government and the assistant director at the state legal services authority.
The top court, which had issued notices to the state government and the Registrar General of the Gujarat High Court on April 13 on the plea of the two judicial officers, was very critical of the decision and the order passed on April 18 to promote the 68 officers despite knowing the pendency of the case before it.
"It is very unfortunate that despite the fact that the respondents, more particularly, the state government, was aware of the present proceedings and the fact that in the present proceedings, this court made the notice returnable on April 28, 2023, the state government has issued the promotion order dated April 18, 2023 i.e. after the receipt of the notice issued by this court in the present proceedings, the top court said in its order on April 28.
In the promotion order, even the state government stated that it will be subject to the outcome of the proceedings pending in the top court, the top court had said.
"We do not appreciate the haste and hurry in which the state has approved and passed the promotion order... when this court was seized with the matter and a detailed order was passed while issuing the notice," it had said.
It is to be noted that the selection was in 2022 and hence, there was no extraordinary urgency in passing the promotion order, and that too when this court was seized of the matter, the order said.
"We are prima facie of the opinion that it is nothing but overreaching the court's process and the present proceedings. Let the secretary of the state government explain the extraordinary urgency shown in the matter in giving promotion and issuing the notification dated 18.04.2023 granting the promotion, subject to the ultimate outcome of the proceedings, it had said.
The top court had also asked the High Court Registrar General to file a reply specifically on whether the promotions to the post in question are to be given on the basis of the seniority-cum-merit or the merit-cum-seniority and place on record the entire merit list.
Prior to this, the top court on April 13 had issued the notices on the plea of the two judicial officers.
The petition said as per the recruitment rules, the post of district judge is to be filled in by keeping 65 per cent reservation on the basis of the principle of merit-cum-seniority and passing a suitability test.
They said the merit-cum-seniority principle has been given a go-by and the appointments are being made on the basis of the seniority-cum-merit.
The two judicial officers had secured 135.5 marks and 148.5 marks respectively out of 200.
Despite this, the candidates who had lower marks were appointed as district judges, they submitted.
The CJM Surat on March 23 had sentenced Gandhi to two years in jail in a 2019 criminal defamation case over his "Modi surname" remark.
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