Judges’ seniority cannot be fixed on the basis of roster system followed for reservations, rules HC

The Madras High Court has disapproved the practice of fixing inter-se seniority among civil judges (junior division) on the basis of 200-point roster system followed by Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC) to apply the rule of reservation while recruiting them.

The court has, instead, ordered that seniority must be fixed only on the basis of marks obtained by the candidates in the competitive examination. Otherwise, the meritorious reserved category (MRC) candidates, who had scored well and managed to clear the examinations under general category, would end up being pushed behind in seniority, it said.

Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy ordered revision of seniority of all civil judges who were recruited in the State since 2009 because only judges recruited that year had approached the High Court. The Bench, however, made it clear that promotions that had already been granted need not be disturbed and that the revised seniority list must be followed for future promotions. If two or more appointees had obtained identical marks in the examinations, then the older or oldest in age would occupy the higher or highest position between such candidates in the seniority list, the judges clarified.

Disposing of a batch of writ petitions by way of a common order, the first Division Bench wrote: “In the pyramidal hierarchy that exists in the Indian judiciary, there is the district judiciary – uncharitably, at times, referred to as the subordinate judiciary – which is made up of three tiers, then there are the High Courts which exercise superintendence over the district judiciary and finally there is the Supreme Court which exercises the authority to declare the law of the land under Article 141 of the Constitution. At the very bottom of the pyramid is the entry level post of Civil Judge (Junior Division).”

In respect of the recruitment at the lowest entry-level of Civil Judge (Junior Division), the rules of recruitment in Government service as prevalent in the State would apply. The TNPSC makes the recruitment by following the 200-point roster system and forwards the list of successful candidates to the High Court for its acceptance. While doing so, a MRC would jump out of the reserved category and get a roster position earmarked for a general category candidate because on merit such a candidate would have made the cut even without any reservation being in vogue.

“The principle behind such rule is to recognise the merit of the candidate and to treat an MRC as a general category candidate and leave the slot that he would otherwise have occupied in his reserved category to another socially backward candidate of the same class. The very ethos of social justice founded on the principle of equal availability of opportunities justifies the rule that an MRC has to jump from his category to the general category… In such a scenario, if the roster system is taken to be order of seniority among the recruited candidates, it would result in an MRC being penalised for his merit,” the court held.

While referring to a host of Supreme Court verdicts to support their conclusion, the judges said if a latest judgment of the Supreme Court does not refer to an earlier judgment of that court on the same subject and takes a contrary view, it would be open to the High Court to choose any one of those judgements depending upon the facts of the case and apply the same. However, if the latest Supreme Court judgement had taken its earlier verdict into consideration and read it down, then the High Courts would have no choice but to follow the latest judgement of the top court.

“In other words, to put it bluntly, if a pink ping-pong ball referred to in the previous judgment is subsequently interpreted to have been a red ping-pong ball, it is such dictum which becomes binding and the High Court cannot refer to the original pink ping-pong ball,” the verdict authored by Chief Justice Banerjee read.

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