Minimum qualifying marks in the interview as a part of the selection criteria for appointment to the District Judiciary in the States of Bihar and Gujarat is legally valid: SC

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The Supreme Court (SC) of India on May 06, 2024, heard the Abhimeet Sinha & Ors. vs. High Court of Judicature at Patna & Ors. case where the six writ petitions challenged the constitutionality of the Rules stipulating minimum qualifying marks in the viva voce test as a part of the selection criteria for appointment to the District Judiciary in the States of Bihar and Gujarat. The petitioners approached the SC alleging a violation of their fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 16 contained in Part III of the Constitution of India. The SC bench upheld the minimum qualifying marks requirement in the viva voce test/ interviews as a part of the selection criteria for appointment to the District Judiciary in the States of Bihar and Gujarat. The bench comprising Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra and Justice Hrishikesh Roy rejected the petitioner’s contention that the prescription of minimum marks violates Article 14 of the Constitution of India. The bench said, “Interviews are to produce better judicial candidates and do not violate Article 14; policies like moderation (of marks) should ideally be part of the rules.” During the proceedings, the SC underscored the importance of prescribing minimum marks in the interview to qualify for the recruitment of judicial officers. It said, “An interview unveils the essence of a candidate— their personality, passion, and potential. While the written exam measures knowledge, the interview reveals character and capability. Therefore, a person seeking a responsible position particularly as a judicial officer should not be shortlisted only by their performance on paper, but also by their ability to articulate and engage which will demonstrate their suitability for the role of a presiding officer in a court.” Before the top court, the ancillary prayer was to prepare a fresh select list based on the aggregate marks of written examination and interview, irrespective of the cut-off marks prescribed. 

The legal counsel appearing for the petitioner contended that prescribing minimum qualifying marks in viva voce is inappropriate because certain candidates score well in written examinations but score less than the minimum qualifying marks and vice versa. In context with this, the question addressed by the SC was “whether those who had high marks in the written test can by itself be considered in the “meritorious” category?” The bench observed, “This is a debatable issue since the high scores for the written test by itself do not determine the merit and suitability of an aspirant. The performance would also depend on the social, economic, and cultural capital of the candidate. Access to resources such as coaching institutes, quality school education, financial stability, time and flexibility, networking opportunities, mentorship, and access to relevant study materials, are vital factors which also manifestly contribute to the performance in the written test.” Following this, the top court noted “The written test cannot possibly capture the full spectrum of the individual's abilities and potential. An interview can also provide a medium for marginalized candidates to showcase their talents in ways that a written test may not possibly allow…can we ignore the intrinsic ability of the members of the interview panel constituted by the High Court judges to separate the grain from the chaff?” It added, “However, a caveat may be necessary here that candidates hailing from English-speaking urban environments might possess linguistic fluency and familiarity with cultural norms typically associated with interviews and therefore are likely to navigate the viva voce segment with relative ease. Conversely, candidates from marginalized communities may face challenges due to their lack of exposure to urban settings. This is further exacerbated by conscious and unconscious bias on grounds of gender, religion, caste etc.”

Advocate Purvish Jitendra Malkan represented the Gujarat High Court while Advocate Gautam Narayan appeared for the Patna High Court. Senior Advocate (SA) Ajit Kumar Sinha, SA Rameshwar Singh Malik, and SA Yatinder Singh with Advocate Shraddha Deshmukh, Advocate Rishabh Sancheti, and Advocate Pawanshree Agrawal appeared for the petitioners. After hearing the arguments from both sides, the SC bench held that “The prescription of minimum cut-off is also not perceived to be of such a nature that it reeks of irrationality or was capricious and/or without any adequate determining principle. It does not appear to be disproportionate so as to adversely affect “meritorious” candidates, as has been argued. It is certainly not manifestly arbitrary, or irrational or violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.” The top court said that “the validity challenge to Clause 11 of the Bihar Rules, 1951 and Rule 8(3) of the Gujarat Rules, 2005 (as amended in 2011) prescribing minimum marks for interview are repelled.” While concluding the judgment, the SC said that the impugned selection process in the State of Bihar and Gujarat is legally valid and upheld.