Parliament is considering a proposal to change the process of appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and High Courts. A Constitutional Amendment Bill has been introduced in Rajya Sabha that enables the formation of a Judicial Appointments Committee (JAC), and states that the composition and functions of the JAC will be detailed in a law enacted by Parliament. The appointments will be made according to the recommendations of the JAC. This body replaces the current process of “consultation” with the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and other senior judges. An ordinary Bill has also been introduced in Rajya Sabha which seeks to establish the JAC. The composition of the JAC will be the CJI, the next two judges of the Supreme Court in terms of seniority, the law minister and two eminent persons. These two eminent persons will be selected by a collegium consisting of the CJI, the prime minister and the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. In case of High Court Judges, the JAC will consult with the chief minister, the governor of the state and the Chief Justice of the High Court. The new system is widening the selection committee. It includes representatives of the executive and senior judiciary, as well as two persons who are jointly selected by the executive (PM), judiciary (CJI), and the legislature (leader of opposition). However, it may be diluting some of the safeguards in the Constitution. At a later date, the composition of the JAC can be amended by ordinary majority in Parliament. [For example, they can drop the judicial members.] This is a significantly lower bar than the current system which requires a change to the Constitution, i.e., have the support of two thirds of members of each House of Parliament, and half the state assemblies. The 120th Constitution Amendment Bill and the JAC Bill are listed for consideration and passing in Rajya Sabha today. Given that these Bills propose fundamental changes to the process of appointments to key constitutional bodies, it is important that there be a wide debate. The Rajya Sabha must refer these Bills to the Standing Committee for careful examination of various issues. I have written a piece on this issue in the Indian Express today.
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.