With the outgoing Chief Justice Dipak Misra recommending him for appointment as his successor as per convention, being the senior-most judge after Justice Misra’s retirement, the decks have been cleared for Justice Ranjan Gogoi to take charge as the next Chief Justice of India on October 3. Formally, the Union Government has to still take a call but for all practical purposes, Justice Gogoi is CJI-designate since Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has indicated that the Modi government will follow convention.
In free India’s history, there have been only two instances when the convention was not followed, both during Indira Gandhi’s premiership. In 1973, Justice A N Ray’s name was cleared for the CJI, superseding three others, and in 1977 when Justice M H Beg was chosen ahead of Justice H R Khanna who had stood up to the Emergency and the Prime Minister
With the acrimony that characterises relations between the Treasury benches and the Opposition in Parliament today any defiance of convention would have disturbed a hornet’s nest. The Modi government could not but have been piqued at Justice Gogoi’s participation in a media conference with three other senior Supreme Court judges last January to protest CJI Misra ignoring senior judges in allocation of work, but prudently, it seems to have let bygones be bygones.
If Justice Gogoi’s name is finally cleared, he will be the first CJI from the Northeast (he hails from Assam) and he will get a 14-month stint before he retires. Significantly, all the three other judges who participated in the protest media conference---Justice Chelameswar, Justice Kurien Joseph and Justice Madan Lokur---would have retired before January 2019.
These being momentous times with general elections only a few months away, if appointed, Justice Gogoi will be watched for how he steers through a difficult period especially on sensitive cases like the Ayodhya title suit, the National Register for Citizenship in Assam, the admissibility of Aadhaar as identity proof, among others.
With the no-nonsense reputation that he enjoys he can be expected to eschew political biases though there could be a tendency to question his impartiality considering that his father Keshab Chandra Gogoi was a chief minister under the Congress regime in Assam in 1982.
Justice Gogoi would also be judged on how he deals with the contentious issue of appointment of judges which is hanging fire since the last few years. Since the time the National Judicial Accountability Commission was struck down by the apex court, the government has been clamouring for a method of appointment that addresses their concern that the principle of checks and balances has been given the go-by by the judiciary assuming a larger role than the Constitution had envisaged.
The new CJI would also be judged by what he does to reduce pendency of cases in courts which has been a cause of much worry in a scenario in which it is recognised widely that justice delayed is justice denied.
Another issue would be to root out corruption within the judiciary which is assuming alarming proportions. In general, it would be a big step in judicial reforms if a greater measure of accountability is injected into the system.
On allocation of important cases, if one goes by the grievance expressed by Supreme Court senior judges during the media conference, there is a likelihood of PILs and important cases which are now mainly heard by CJI-led bench being spread among 12 or 13 benches.
Justice Gogoi is known to be a no-nonsense man and a stickler for rules so there was surprise when he joined three other judges in a show of strength on the non-allocation of work. But that can be dismissed as an aberration. As CJI a degree of restraint would be expected of him.