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The Curious Case Of Justice C.S.Karnan

#Obituary" data-image-description="<h1></h1> <div><img alt="" src="" width="600" height="360" border="0" /></p> <div>“Fireweed: a Political Autobiography”/Temple University Press</div> <p><a class="zem_slink" title="Gerda Lerner" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Gerda Lerner</a> and her husband, Carl, in 1966, at her graduation from Columbia with a doctorate.</p> </div> <p>&nbsp;</p> <h6>By <a title="More Articles by WILLIAM GRIMES" href="" rel="author">WILLIAM GRIMES</a></h6> <h6>Published: January 3, 2013</h6> <div> <div></div> <div> <div> <div><a>Enlarge This Image</a></div> <p><a><img alt="" src="" width="190" height="133" /></a></div> <h6>Andy Manis for <a class="zem_slink" title="New York Times" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">The New York Times</a></h6> <p>Gerda Lerner in her office in Madison, Wis., in 2002.</p> </div> </div> <div> <p>Her death was confirmed by Steve J. Stern, a history professor and friend at the <a class="zem_slink" title="University of Wisconsin–Madison" href=",-89.417222&amp;spn=0.01,0.01&amp;q=43.075,-89.417222 (University%20of%20Wisconsin%E2%80%93Madison)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">University of Wisconsin-Madison</a>, where Dr. Lerner had taught for many years.</p> <p>In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, Dr. Lerner entered an academic world in which women’s history scarcely existed. The number of historians interested in the subject, she told The New York Times in 1973, “could have fit into a telephone booth.”</p> <p>“In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” Dr. Lerner told <a class="zem_slink" title="Chicago Tribune" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">The Chicago Tribune</a> in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”</p> <p>That picture changed rapidly, in large part because of her efforts while teaching at <a class="zem_slink" title="Sarah Lawrence College" href=",-73.844326&amp;spn=0.01,0.01&amp;q=40.935124,-73.844326 (Sarah%20Lawrence%20College)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">Sarah Lawrence College</a> in the early 1970s. In creating a graduate program there, Dr. Lerner set about trying to establish women’s history as a respected academic discipline and to raising the status of women in the historical profession. She also began gathering and publishing the primary source material — diaries, letters, speeches and so on — that would allow historians to reconstruct the lives of women.</p> <p>“She made it happen,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia. “She established women’s history as not just a valid but a central area of scholarship. If you look at any library today, you will see hundreds of books on the subject.”</p> <p>Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born on April 30, 1920, in Vienna, where her father, Robert, owned a large pharmacy. Her mother, the former Ilona Neumann, a free-spirited bohemian at heart, tried unsuccessfully to reconcile her budding career as an artist with her duties as a housewife and mother. This struggle made a marked impression on her daughter.</p> <p>Immediately after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Dr. Lerner’s father, a Jew, was tipped off that he was about to be arrested. As a hedge, he had started a pharmacy in Liechtenstein, and there he fled, whereupon the Gestapo arrested his wife and daughter to force his return. Five weeks later, after he sold his Austrian assets for a nominal sum, his wife and daughter were released and left for Liechtenstein as well.</p> <p>“It was the most important experience of my life, because I didn’t think that I was going to come out alive,” Dr. Lerner told The Chicago Tribune in 1993.</p> <p>A more thorough investigation by the Gestapo might have revealed that their young prisoner had been doing underground work for the Communists for several years.</p> <p>Through a marriage of convenience, Gerda Kronstein made her way to New York, where she worked in menial jobs and trained at Sydenham Hospital in Harlem as an X-ray technician. As a saleswoman at a Fifth Avenue candy store, she was fired after she reported her employers to the Labor Department for paying their factory workers less than the minimum wage.</p> <p>In 1941, she married Carl Lerner, a theater director and Communist who helped her polish her halting English by having her repeat tongue-twisters like “Mae West is wearing a vest.” The couple moved to Hollywood, where Mr. Lerner became an apprentice film editor.</p> <p>Dr. Lerner placed a short story based on her jail experience, “Prisoners,” in The Clipper, a liberal literary journal, joined the Communist Party and began working with community groups to organize supermarket boycotts and neighborhood child care centers.</p> <p>“I was unduly intense, super-serious, incapable of small talk or the kind of friendly gossip that hold acquaintances together,” she wrote in “<a title="The book at Google Books." href="">Fireweed: A Political Autobiography</a>” (2002). “My perfectionism, insistence on anti-fascist commitment in word and deed, and general ‘heaviness’ as a person set me apart from others.”</p> <p>Because of his politics, Mr. Lerner found it increasingly hard to find work in Hollywood, so in 1949 the couple returned to New York, where he became a top film editor, working on “Twelve Angry Men,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “Klute” and other films. In 1964, the two collaborated on the film “<a title="Film overview on Times Movies." href="">Black Like Me</a>,” based on the 1961 book by the Southern white journalist John Howard Griffin that recounted his experiences disguised as a black man in the Deep South. Mr. Lerner directed, and together they helped adapt the book for film.</p> <p>Mr. Lerner died in 1973 after a long illness that Dr. Lerner wrote about in “<a title="The book on" href="">A Death of One’s Own</a>” (1978). Her survivors include a sister, Nora Kronstein; a daughter, Stephanie Lerner; a son, Dan; and four grandchildren.</p> <p>Dr. Lerner, with great difficulty, found a publisher for “No Farewell” (1955), a novel about the coming of fascism to Austria, but by the late 1950s she faced uncertain prospects as a writer. With thoughts of writing a historical novel, she began researching the lives of Sarah and <a class="zem_slink" title="Angelina Grimké" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Angelina Grimké</a>, daughters of a wealthy plantation owner, who traveled throughout the <a class="zem_slink" title="United States" href=",-77.0166666667&amp;spn=10.0,10.0&amp;q=38.8833333333,-77.0166666667 (United%20States)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">United States</a> proselytizing for the <a class="zem_slink" title="American Anti-Slavery Society" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">American Anti-Slavery Society</a>.</p> <p>The novel never materialized, but her research led to a new career. She began taking history courses at the <a class="zem_slink" title="The New School" href=",-73.9969666667&amp;spn=0.01,0.01&amp;q=40.7355777778,-73.9969666667 (The%20New%20School)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">New School for Social Research</a>, where, while still an undergraduate, she taught “Great Women in American History.” It was one of the first courses ever given in the United States on women’s history.</p> <p>After earning her bachelor’s degree from the New School in 1963, she enrolled at Columbia, her work on the Grimké sisters in hand, to study women’s history. Bending the rules, the university allowed her to complete her master’s and doctorate in three years. In 1967, she published “<a title="The book at Google Books." href="">The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery</a>.”</p> <p>At Sarah Lawrence, where Dr. Lerner began teaching history in 1968, she was the driving force behind what is widely credited as the first <a title="Program at Sarah Lawrence site." href="">graduate program in women’s history</a> in the United States, established in 1972.</p> <p>At the same time, after writing the textbook “The Woman in American History” (1971), Dr. Lerner began gathering documentary material that would allow other scholars to write women’s history. Her material was published in two important sourcebooks, “Black Women in White America: A Documentary History” (1972) and “The Female Experience: Documents in American History” (1976).</p> <p>In 1980, she joined the history department at Wisconsin-Madison, where she created the university’s doctoral program in women’s history. She retired from Wisconsin in 1991. In 1981, she became the first woman in 50 years to be elected president of the <a title="The group’s Web site." href="">Organization of American Historians</a>. The <a title="The prize at the site." href="">Lerner-Scott Prize</a>, named in honor of her and Anne Firor Scott, another pioneer in women’s history, has been given annually since 1992 for the best doctoral dissertation on women’s history in the United States.</p> <p>Dr. Lerner wrote two ambitious studies on women and society: “The Creation of Patriarchy” (1986) and “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness” (1997). Many of her essays were collected in “The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History” (1979) and “Why History Matters” (1997).</p> <p>“I want women’s history to be legitimate, to be part of every curriculum on every level,” she wrote in “<a title="The book at Google Books." href="">Living With History/Making Social Change</a>” (2009), a collection of autobiographical essays. “I want people to be able to take Ph.D.’s in the subject and not have to say they are doing something else.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <div> <p>Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.</p> </div> </div> <h6 class="zemanta-related-title" style="font-size:1em;">Related articles</h6> <ul class="zemanta-article-ul"> <li class="zemanta-article-ul-li"><a href="" target="_blank">Gerda Lerner, 1920-2013</a> (</li> </ul> <p>&nbsp;</p> " data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-11818" src="" sizes="(max-width: 690px) 100vw, 690px" srcset=" 960w, 300w, 768w, 98w" alt="justice-karnan" width="690" height="388" />

“To err is human. Courts including the apex one are no exception. To own up the mistake when judicial satisfaction is reached does not militate against its status or authority. Perhaps it would enhance both.”, so goes the pronouncement of Supreme Court of India in Antulay’s matter where a seven judges bench of Supreme Court reviewed and recalled its own five judges bench decision and gave relief to Antulay, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

The present question of law is on the legality and propriety of a seven judges bench of Supreme Court issuing suo motu contempt notice and also bailable arrest warrant against Justice C.S.Karnan, a sitting judge of Calcutta High Court.

On one side, the shocking shackles of contempt notice and bailable arrest warrant, and, on the other side the convoluted condensate of corruption in higher judiciary boldly brought to surface by Justice Karnan before he was transferred from Madras High Court to Calcutta High Court, makes the case of Justice Karnan not only a curious case but also a test of the efficacy of the protection afforded by Indian Constitution to judges of High Courts and Supreme Court.

It is very easy to jump to the conclusion that it is at best the taming of a ‘temperamental’ high court judge. But it is not so easy to wish away the corruption in the judiciary including the higher judiciary. Fortunately, there were and there are honest, hardworking and sincere judges at all levels. But their number is dwindling. That is what causes and what should cause alarm.

From the web site of Supreme Court of India one can see three orders dated February 8, February 13 and March 10, 2017, to know, up till now, the pending case of Justice Karnan.

Under the order dated February 8, 2017, Suo Motu Contempt Petition (Civil) No. 1 of 2017 was initiated and show cause notice was issued to Justice C.S. Karnan by a seven judges bench of Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India Jagdish Singh Khehar, with other judges on the bench, Justices Dipak Misra, J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur, Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Kurian Joseph. Suo Motu means on the own motion of the judges. The order dated Mar 10, 2017 issued bailable warrant of arrest for being brought before Supreme Court on 31.03.2017.

With the order dated Feb 8, till the case is decided, Justice Karnan has been relieved of his duties and asked to return judicial and administration files to the court registrar.

It needs to be mentioned that the Contempt Petition against Justice Karnan is civil and not criminal. Contempt may be criminal or civil. Criminal contempt is conduct (whether words or actions) that obstructs or tends to obstruct the administration of justice. Civil contempt is deliberate disobedience of an order of the court or breach of an undertaking given to the court. Either is punishable by committal or fine.

The order dated Feb 8, 2017 issuing show cause notice to Justice Karnan returnable on 13.02.2017 does not record reasons for issuing the notice except directing the Registry, “the letters taken note of while issuing notice, are furnished to Shri Justice C.S.Karnan.” Therefore, people are compelled to infer that some letters written by Justice Karnan became the basis to issue the show cause notice for civil contempt.

It is difficult to understand how the letters written by a High Court Judge could form the basis for suo motu civil contempt proceedings. Since there are no explicit reasons recorded in the order dated Feb 8, for issuing show cause notice, the public is left to depend on the media to know the reasons. According to some of the media reports, Justice Karnan has written letters to the Chief Justice of India, Prime Minister, Law Minister and Judges of other High Courts discussing the corruption connected to several sitting and retired judges and these letters formed the basis for suo motu contempt notice from the Supreme Court.

Justice Karnan is not the first person and the only person to talk of the corruption in the higher judiciary in India. Several years back, Shanti Bhushan, a very senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, and former Union law Minister, had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that half of the previous 16 Chief Justices of India were definitely corrupt (he named them in a sealed envelope which he gave to the Court), and he was uncertain about 2 more. The public is aware that since then more Chief Justices of India who retired had serious allegations of corruption against them.

In April 2016, noted lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan in a talk show was reported to have stated, “Judiciary is an important institution… But the judicial system has collapsed. A big movement is needed to improve it,” , “There is no institution free of government and judiciary (control) where a complaint against the judiciary can be lodged. Due to this, corruption is thriving,”

Over the years, considerable public discussion has been taking place in the country underlining the need for transparency in the functioning of the judiciary and in particular transparency in the matter of appointment and removal of judges.

In his defence, Justice Karnan is reported to have taken the position that he is targeted for seeking investigation into the corruption in higher judiciary. Truth cannot fail to be a defence in contempt of court proceedings. This is a pure question of law.

Another contention of Justice Karnan is that he is targeted and discriminated for being a Dalit. This requires examination of facts.

As regards the discrimination for being Dalit, some critics aired that Justice Karnan is hoisting Dalit card as some kind of red herring while there is no discrimination at all. To say there is no discrimination against Dalits and Lower Classes amounts to being as much honest as in claiming there is no corruption in the higher judiciary.

The legal defences, as known to the public through the media, that are being taken by Justice Karnan, even though they are not correctly and coherently articulated, cannot be arbitrarily brushed aside and they require consideration by an appropriate bench of Supreme Court. According to Justice Karnan, Supreme Court has “no locus standi” to issue a bailable warrant against a sitting judge. His contention is that no contempt action, either civil or criminal, can be initiated against a sitting High Court Judge under Sections 2(c), 12 and 14 of the Contempt of Courts Act or can he be deprived of protection under Article 20 of the Constitution. According to him, “Only a motion of impeachment can be initiated against a sitting judge of the higher judiciary before the Parliament after due enquiry under the Judges’ Enquiry Act”. Referring to the directive that he should be brought before Supreme Court (SC), under a bailable arrest warrant, Justice Karnan contends and says , “The SC shares equal power and rights with all the HCs of the country . It is not my master and I am not its servant. I will not appear before the SC.” He further added, “if the law keepers of the country have taken an unprecedented route to malign me, I’ve the power to take an unprecedented route to fight back”. It is perhaps the way a person reacts when he is pushed to the wall.

It appears, as part of the unprecedented route to fight back, Justice Karnan issued an “order” directing the CBI to register and probe cases under Article 226 and CrPc Section 482 against a host of judges from different courts for corruption, rape and embezzlement. “I had written to the PM to initiate investigations against at least 22 corrupt judges. That was on January 23 this year. Most of them are from upper castes and that is why no investigation has started. It is because I was bold to bring charges against them that I am being cornered now. I am a Dalit and that is why I am being targeted,” he said. He also appealed to the President to revoke the warrant against him. “Only the President can restore my prestige now and I appeal to his good offices,” Justice Karnan said.

The Achilles Heel of the seven judges bench of Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Khehar gets revealed from its recorded contention in the order dated March 10, 2017, “In view of the above, there is no other alternative but to seek the presence of Shri Justice C.S.Karnan by issuing bailable warrants.”

The alternative available was ignored by the Supreme Court as could be seen from the recording in the very same order dated Mar 10, “It would be pertinent to mention, that the Registry of this Court received a fax message, from Shri Justice C.S.Karnan, dated 08.03.2017, seeking a meeting with the Chief Justice and the Hon’ble Judges of this Court, so as to discuss certain administrative issues expressed therein, which primarily seem to reflect the allegations levelled by him against certain named Judges. The above fax message, dated 08.03.2017, cannot be considered as a response of Shri Justice C.S.Karnan, either to the contempt petition, or to the notice served upon him.”

Thus the seven judges bench was not willing to extend the respect that a sitting Judge of High Court deserves for being heard keeping his dignity and honour as a High Court Judge and to explore alternative ways to resolve the razing conflict that could further damage the good name of the higher judiciary. The respect should be at least to the post of High Court Judge, if not to the person of Karnan. Attorney General for India Mukul Rohatgi could have assisted the seven judge bench in this connection. But as is evident from the order dated Mar 10, 2017, the seven judges bench is bent upon seeing the High Court Judge as contemnor, “The above fax message, dated 08.03.2017, cannot be considered as a response of Shri Justice C.S.Karnan, either to the contempt petition, or to the notice served upon him.”

Dealing with the curious case of Justice Karnan, eminent lawyer Ram Jethmalani in his inimitable style informed the media that he has written a letter dated 11.03.2017 from the departure lounge of God’s airport giving advice to Justice Karnan, “As a senior member of the Bar and living in the departure lounge of God’s airport I am advising you to withdraw every word that you have uttered and humbly pray for pardon for every stupid action you have so far indulged in.”. Having been “convinced”, Jethmalani tells Justice Karnan, “Your behavior is that of a lunatic …”

The substance of Jethmalani’s letter in his own words, “In this corruption-dominated country, our judiciary is the only protection. Do not destroy it or weaken it,”

With due respects to Jethmalani it must be said that no one is trying to destroy the judiciary. The fact is judiciary is destroying itself. Jethmalani is looking at it from a wrong end.

While deciding to issue suo motu contempt notice to a sitting judge of High Court, and the subsequent bailable arrest warrant, the seven judges bench of Supreme Court, it appears, did not anticipate that the challenge to the institutional integrity and authority of the higher judiciary could originate not only from executive action, legislative provision, but also from judicial decision.

The legality and propriety of the decision to issue suo motu civil contempt notice to a sitting judge of the High Court and the bailable warrant of arrest cannot be decided by the very same seven judges bench who decided the suo motu contempt notice and bailable arrest warrant. It has to go to a larger bench for consideration.

The profitable way to analyse the curious case of Justice Karnan is not to focus on the “idiosyncrasies”, if any, of Justice Karnan but to find ways to examine into the allegations of corruption levelled by him. One obvious question that arises from this case is, even if the self-destructive adventurism of a High Court Judge fails to penetrate the convoluted condensate of corruption in the higher judiciary, whether the contempt notice and bailable warrant against Justice Karnan should ultimately result in pushing the issue of corruption under the carpet. Whether it is the right occasion to undertake thorough investigation into the corruption in the higher judiciary, in order to preserve and promote the health of Indian democracy and the rule of law in the country mandated by Indian Constitution?

The writer is former Indian Navy captain with Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and a practicing advocate of Supreme Court of India. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Copy right of this article is owned by the author.

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Comment (1)


    The controversy brings to the fore, many lacunae in the system of unequal society wherd even justice is not equal

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