The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued contempt notices against activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan for alleging on social media that the central government had mislead the court into believing that a high-powered panel had vetted the appointment of an interim CBI chief when it hadn’t. The twin contempt petitions have been filed by Attorney General K.K. Venugopal and the central government. A bench comprising Justices Arun Misra and Navin Sinha issued the notices to Bhushan who was present in court during the hearing.
Justice Misra initially observed that contempt action should be taken only as a last resort. It is a brahmastra that mustn’t be ordinarily used, he observed. However, he issued the notices on the ground that the case involved very serious issues which impinge on the justice delivery system. Justices Misra, who has spoken out earlier against judges being targeted for criticism in politically sensitive cases, pointed out that lawyers now go out and speak on pending matters to the media ignoring the noble traditions of the bar still followed by veterans like Venugopal and Fali Nariman of not commenting on cases in which they are representing any party.
This Justice Misra pointed out affects public opinion and the bench. “Time has come when all these issues should be authoritatively settled. There are larger issues involved in it. What is wrong, what is correct,” he observed. Justice Sinha wanted the line at the right of the public to know what happened in court. “The public has a right to know what transpired in the court,” he said. “Can we say that bar should be drawn there?” AG Venugopal surprised many with his opening arguments insisting that he was not interested in having Bhushan punished. Rather he urged the court to seize this opportunity to lay down the contours within which lawyers and media alike speak on pending cases.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, however, urged the court to act against Bhushan saying that its “magnanimity” should not be mistaken for “weakness”. He argued that though the AG was being magnanimous, he wouldn’t as Bhushan has done this one too many times. Contempt of court is punishable with a maximum jail term of six months. The court asked Bhushan to respond to the court notice within three weeks. The case will be heard again on March 7, 2019. Bhushan was unfazed. He appeared in court and accepted the notices. Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, who was present court, also put a spirited defence for Bhushan. “How’s this contempt?” Dave demanded to know of reporters outside the court room.
Bhushan’s father former law minister Shanti Bhushan in fact is already facing a contempt case in the top court for speaking out over alleged corruption in the top judiciary. The top court hasn’t been able to make much headway over this case. It’s been pending for years now. An earlier attempt by former CJI S.H. Kapadia to frame guidelines for the media had also made no headway. But this will the first attempt by the court to also rein in lawyers from speaking on their cases while they are still pending in court.