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Chief Justice Bobde: Harley Davidson and Code of Conduct

Very recently social media was flooded with pictures of Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde sitting on a Harley Davidson superbike, prompting several reactions among general public.

Before elevation to bench, justice Bobde was an ardent biker when he was a lawyer in Nagpur. He  was photographed checking out a guest’s motorbike at a ceremony in Raj Bhawan of Maharashtra. In the images, shared by several lawyers, Justice Bobde can be seen sitting on a parked Harley Davidson CVO 2020 and is surrounded by people wearing masks.

Well, it's no secret that Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde is fascinated with motorcycles and on several occasions, he has expressed his fondness for bikes. On 28 June 2020, he familiarised people with his new avatar when he was pictured while checking out a Harley Davidson.

The reactions of general public and legal fraternity were mixed by and large. A few were surprised to see the Chief Justice in this new Avatar and took it on lighter note but at the same time a few netizens criticised the photograph labelling it a   public stunt unsuitable and unbecoming to the conduct of the Chief Justice of India.

It is true that conduct ( even private act) of a judge always remains at surveillance and scrutinized by public. This is because of the fact that this wing ( judiciary) is more trusted in eyes of Public  and more independent than the executive or legislative branch.

The conduct of a judge starting from Chief Justice of India to a Munsif in Taluka( lower Judiciary) is monitored continuesoly at several levels. The conduct of a judge in public as well as private life is expected to be of highest moral values. So many restrictions are imposed on a judge and he generally remains aloof and in solitude in order to maintain the decorum of the Judiciary as a whole.

The superindence of judges of lower court is done by respective High Court of the state ( article 227 of constitution). The code of conduct and ethics are made by High court for the  judges of subordinate courts. The civil judges or Judicial magistrates are not permitted to mingle with society.

They can't attend the unofficial functions. They are even prohibited to attend a school function as Chief guest. The code of conduct of the judges of constitutional courts ( Supreme and High Courts)  is made by Supreme Court of India. How the judges of these courts will conduct in public and private life, is prescribed in a charter called Restatement of Values of Judicial Life adopted by Supreme Court on 7 May 1997. It is a code of Judicial ethics and serves as a guide for independent and fair judiciary, paving the way for the impartial administration of justice.

Now, before we minutely  scrutinize the photo ops by justice Bobde on Harley Davidson bike, it is apt to know the 16 principles of conduct for Judges embodied in above mentioned charter.

The code comprises following points:
  1. Justice must not merely be done but it must also be seen to be done. The behaviour and conduct of members of the higher judiciary must reaffirm the people’s faith in the impartiality of the judiciary. Accordingly, any act of a judge of the Supreme Court or a high court, whether in official or personal capacity, which erodes the credibility of this perception, has to be avoided.
  2. A judge should not contest the election to any office of a club, society or other association; further he shall not hold such elective office except in a society or association connected with the law.
  3. Close association with individual members of the bar, particularly those who practice in the same court, shall be eschewed.
  4. A judge should not permit any member of his immediate family, such as spouse, son, daughter, son-in-law or daughter-in-law or any other close relative, if a member of the Bar, to appear before him or even be associated in any manner with a cause to be dealt with by him.
  5. No member of his family, who is a member of the Bar, shall be permitted to use the residence in which the judge actually resides or other facilities for professional work.
  6. A judge should practice a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of his office.
  7. A judge shall not hear and decide a matter in which a member of his family, a close relation or a friend is concerned.
  8. A judge shall not enter into public debate or express his views in public on political matters or on matters that are pending or are likely to arise for judicial determination.
  9. A judge is expected to let his judgments speak for themselves. He shall not give interviews to the media.
  10. A judge shall not accept gifts or hospitality except from his family, close relations and friends.
  11. A judge shall not hear and decide a matter of a company in which he holds shares  unless he has disclosed his interest and no objection to his hearing and deciding the matter is raised.
  12. A judge shall not speculate in shares, stocks or the like.
  13. A judge should not engage directly or indirectly in trade or business, either by himself or in association with any other person. (Publication of a legal treatise or any activity in the nature of a hobby shall not be construed as trade or business).
  14. A judge should not ask for, accept contributions or otherwise actively associate himself with the raising of any fund for any purpose.
  15. A judge should not seek any financial  benefit in the form of a perquisite or privilege attached to his office unless it is clearly available. Any doubt in this regard must be resolved and clarified through the Chief Justice.
  16. Every judge must at all times be conscious that he is under public gaze and there should be no act or omission by him which is unbecoming of the high office he occupies and the public esteem in which that office is held.

Now, from these 16 principles of conduct, one thing can be easily inferred that there is a requirement of highest degree of ethics on part of judge of high court or supreme Court. Judge of higher Judiciary is a constitutional post and no other authority can direct or mandate a judge to behave in a particular away except the judge himself. A judge is accountable for his conduct within and without the court.

Now if we try to fit the conduct of justice Bobde in pigeon hole of these 16 principles of conduct then barring point no 6 and 16, no other code of conduct is relevant for the act of honourable justice under discussion.

Now as per point no 6 of the aforesaid charter, a judge should practice a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of his office. The term  aloofness is of very wide connotation and no exhaustive list can be prepared to distinguish any act of a judge to describe it as  Aloof.

Aloofness can never be a complete seclusion away from society or general awareness. A judge can not be disconnected from society when he has to decide the matters related to  that very society. Aloofness should be confined only to restrict a judge to socialize with members of bar, political leaders or other public servants  who are interested parties in most of the cases before such courts.

Now, in the case under discussion, few netizens on twitter were very quick to find out the owner of the said bike, who was alleged to be a local BJP leader of Maharashtra.( The author  doesn't authenticate the claim so made about ownership of bike). In the age of social media with overdose of fake news, the burden lies on judges only to save the dignity of adminstration of justice.

Now , coming back on the charter of code of conduct for Judges, according to point no 16, every judge must at  all the times be conscious that he is under the public gaze and there should be not act on part of judge which is unbecoming of the office of a judge.

The public gaze ,here is more important when a  judge does any private act. Within the court, the conduct of a judge is largely limited to official work, but without court, any act of judge is examined conspicuously. Judges become popular only because of their conduct inside the court room through their Judgments.

A judge is not called by his or her name rather he or she is pronounced as a 'Court'. This is because of the fact that judges do not have individuality. If individuality is given more importance, then at the end of day it may create a  specific notional perception in the mind of public about the conduct of that judge.

The perception  of public is directly proportional to the trust created. In the age of social media, the dignity of court is threatened. No device or law is developed to contain this menace. After every Judgement by a particular judge,  undignified and unrealistic comments are passed about the character of a judge. As per their convenience,  the troll armies of different affiliation, attack the  honest judges for their Judgements. The millions of social media accounts openly without fear of any contempt proceedings link or affiliate a particular judge with a particular political party.

The driving of Harley Davidson bike by Chief Justice in no way can be termed as a mis-conduct on the part of a judge. This  purely  shows his affection towards bike riding and can not be termed as unbecoming  conduct of a judge. A judge cannot be expected deaf and dumb. But it is equally true that such act are scrutinized under public gaze. The public has no form or size. It consists of different persons with different motives and affiliations.

The judge will have to monitor his own conduct in view of public at large. There was no sin committed by Justice Bobde, instead he should be praised for his affection and love, which he has maintained as a hobby for bike riding. But simultaneously, judges will have to take care that such avoidable instances do not give opportunity to troll army on social media to tarnish the image of judiciary.

Written By: Hari Mudgil is Delhi based Lawyer and research scholar

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