KM Joseph, a judge who strove to uphold rule of law

Through a scathing judgment that restored power to the Congress party, he criticised the actions of the Union government.
Justice KM Joseph
Justice KM Joseph

NEW DELHI: When Supreme Court judges take an oath in accordance with the Constitution of India, they pledge to impart their responsibilities without fear, partisanship or ill will. Throughout his tenure, Justice KM Joseph, who concluded his office on June 16, 2023, remained committed to upholding the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution via significant rulings that transformed the judicial landscape in India.

Although the Supreme Court (SC) collegium had recommended his appointment as an SC judge in January 2018, his name was rejected by the Centre, deeming his elevation inappropriate. The Centre’s request to the collegium to reconsider Justice Joseph’s name had resulted in a dispute between the Indian judiciary and the Centre, causing a delay in judicial appointments. He was finally sworn in as an SC judge on August 17, 2018, when his name was reiterated by the collegium for the second time. However, the Centre’s notification listing his name as the third(after Justices Indira Banerjee and Vineet Saran) was seen by the judiciary circles as an alleged manipulation of seniority by the Modi government.

Justice Joseph, hailing from Kerala’s Kottayam, was appointed a judge of Kerala High Court on October 14, 2004, and later assumed the position of Chief Justice of Uttarakhand High Court on July 31, 2014. Throughout his journey from the Kerala HC to the SC, he faced numerous tests of his commitment to upholding the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution. His groundbreaking verdicts reflected his boldness and brilliance.

As a judge in the Kerala High Court, in 2013, he ordered the demolition of a seven-star resort project worth Rs 200 crore on a private island called Nediyathuruthu in the Vembanad backwaters of Kerala for violating CRZ norms. During his tenure as the Chief Justice of the Uttarakhand HC, he nullified imposition of the President’s Rule in the state in 2016. Through a scathing judgment that restored power to the Congress party, he criticised the actions of the Union government.

Serving as an SC judge for almost five years, Justice Joseph led six constitution benches and presided over several key cases involving the Union government. The constitution bench headed by him upheld the validity of laws permitting Jallikattu, unanimously formed a panel to advise the President of India on the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners, and also ruled that the SC can dissolve a marriage irretrievably broken down by invoking special powers under Article 142.

Justice Joseph, with his strong words, issued significant directives to combat hate speech in the country. Describing hate speech as a “serious and vicious circle”, a bench headed by him directed states and Union Territories to take suo moto action against hate speech offenders, regardless of whether a complaint had been registered, without discriminating on religious grounds.

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