'Thank God We Have Judges Like Anand Venkatesh' : Supreme Court Hails Madras HC Order Reopening Acquittal Of TN Minister Ponmudi

Padmakshi Sharma

6 Nov 2023 7:24 AM GMT

  • Thank God We Have Judges Like Anand Venkatesh : Supreme Court Hails Madras HC Order Reopening Acquittal Of TN Minister Ponmudi
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    The Supreme Court on Monday (November 6) refused to interfere with the Madras High Court's suo motu order re-opening the acquittal of Tamil Nadu Minister Ponmudi and his wife in a disproportionate assets case. Hailing Justice Anand Venkatesh of Madras High Court for passing the suo motu order, the Court refused to entertain the petitions filed by Ponmudi and his wife Visalatchi, clarifying that they will be at liberty to raise their contentions before the High Court.

    It may be recalled that in August, Justice Anand Venkatesh of Madras High Court exercised his suo motu revision powers to hold that the transfer of the case against the Higher Education Minister from District Judge at Villupuram to District Judge at Vellore was "ex-facie illegal and non-est in the eye of law". Notably, the transfer of the case was ordered by the Madras High Court itself in its administrative side in July 2022. Raising several questions at the transfer and also the acquittal, the judge issued notice to the Prosecutor and the accused for fresh hearing.

    Challenging the High Court's order, the minister and his wife approached the Supreme Court. As soon as the matter was taken, the bench led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud expressed disinclination to entertain the challenge.

    Pointing out that the matter is pending before the single bench of the High Court, CJI Chandrachud told Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal that the petitioners can raise their legal grounds there. "You argue before the High Court, that it has no suo motu power," CJI said.

    CJI also expressed concerns about the manner in which the trial was transferred.

    "Thank God that we have judges like Anand Venkatesh in High Courts. Look at the conduct. The Chief Justice transfers the trial from one district to another district. Where is that power? There is no administrative power to transfer trial. It is a judicial power," CJI said. "The matter is placed before someone else and the trial is hurried ending in an acquittal," CJI added.

    CJI said that Justice Anand Venkatesh was "absolutely right in his observations." CJI further pointed out that the ultimately, the judge has only issued notice to the prosecution and accused and that the matter was still pending before the High Court.

    However, Sibal raised a concern that after making strong adverse observations in the order, further hearing in the matter was futile. "I cannot argue for the simple reason that he has set aside the judgment of the trial court. How can the administrative order of transfer invalidate the trial court's judgment? He says an administrative order of this nature should not have been passed. What do I have to do with it?" Sibal urged.

    CJI Chandrachud then pointed out to the operative portion of the order, which merely issues notice to the prosecution and the accused.

    "We will say that since the matter is pending before the single judge of the High Court, you can raise all arguments there," CJI said.

    Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Ponumdi's wife, said, "I had nothing to do with the transfer from one district to another district. The administrative judge issued the transfer which was approved by the Chief Justice".

    CJI repeated that there was nothing erroneous in the order.

    "As I said, Thank god for our institution that we have judges like the judge in this case who passed the impugned order," CJI reiterated.

    Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for an intervenor, alleged that the State Government was colluding with the accused and said that an order should be passed to appoint a Special Public Prosecutor or an amicus curiae, considering the fact that the accused was still a minister. CJI said that the High Court will take an appropriate call on the issue.

    The bench, also comprising Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, passed the following order :
    "The single judge is still seized with the proceedings in which the impugned order was passed on 10.08.2023. The order has merely issued notice in the suo motu criminal revision to the Prosecutor and the accused. We are not inclined to entertain the Special Leave Petitions at the present stage. The petitioners would be at liberty to urge all appropriate grievances before the single judge. We clarify that these objections of the accused would be considered on their own merits by the single bench on which we have not expressed any opinion whatsoever."

    The bench was also told that the State Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption has also filed a petition challenging the same order. However, since the State's petition was not listed today, the bench did not pass any order regarding that.

    It may be noted that Justice Venkatesh later took up suo moto revisions against the acquittal and discharge of Tamil Nadu Revenue Minister KKSSR Ramachandran, Finance Minister Thangam Thenarasu, Former Chief Minister O Paneerselvam, former Backward Class and Minority Welfare Minister B Valarmathi and present Rural Development Minister of Tamil Nadu I. Periyasamy.

    The State DVAC and Ponmudi filed applications seeking recusal of Justice Venkatesh from hearing the suo motu revisions. However, Justice Venkatesh refused to recuse.

    In September, following portfolio changes in the Madras High Court, Justice Venkatesh was transferred to Madurai Bench and his roster for hearing cases concerning legislators was changed.

    In his strongly worded order passed in the case concerning Ponmudi, Justice Venkatesh had said that there was "something seriously amiss about the procedure adopted in transferring the case to a different Court and that too at the fag end of the trial". Not only that, the single judge had also raised doubts at the acquittal itself, noting that within a span of 4 days after the arguments were over on June 23, the trial judge "managed to write a 226-page judgment acquitting the accused" on June 28. "Two days thereafter, on 30.06.2023, the Principal District Judge, Vellore retired and cheerfully rode off into the sunset", Justice Venkatesh had said.

    The Judge had further held that the approval of the Chief Justice on July 8, 2022 will not clothe the note of the Administrative Judges with any legality.

    "The Chief Justice is the Master of the Roster vis-à-vis the Benches in the High Court. It does not follow that the Chief Justice enjoys administrative power to transfer acriminal case pending in a District Court to another District. No such power exists or has been shown to exist either by law or by convention."

    Cases : K.Ponmudi v. State SLP(Crl) No. 14197/2023, P.Visalatchi v. State SLP(Crl) No. 14282/2023

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