The Supreme Court ruling reiterating that the Chief Justice of India is the sole master of roster who can allot cases to benches lends a degree of finality to the contentious issue that has been a bone of contention between Chief Justice Dipak Misra and some other senior judges in recent months. Happily, there should be no room for ambiguity now.
It was an ugly chapter in the apex court’s history when five senior judges addressed a media conference on the issue and aired their view in public on the contentious issue. They had set a precedent that many found unfortunate.
The verdict on Friday relates to a PIL by senior counsel and former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan on the assignment of ‘sensitive’ matters to benches of preference.
The prayer in the petition was for a writ, order or direction holding and declaring that the listing of matters must strictly adhere to the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and the Handbook on Practice and Procedure and Office Procedure, subject to the clarification that the words ‘Chief Justice of India’ must be deemed to mean a collegium of five senior-most judges of the apex court.
The bench of Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan which had reserved its judgment on April 27 has now clarified that the collegium does not figure in the scheme of things and the CJI has the sole authority in allocating work to benches.
Attorney General K K Venugopal, who was asked to assist the court, had argued that having a Collegium to allot cases among judges would only invite chaos. The judges rightly found merit in this.
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It is true that the Constitution has declared the CJI to be first among equals, but administratively the prerogative of constituting benches has been vested in him and any dilution of this specific authority would be retrograde. There cannot be an effective institution in which there is no clearly defined system of accountability and the powers of the CJI are ill-defined.
It is of course expected of the CJI to constitute the benches keeping fair-play and propriety in mind, but it would open up a Pandora’s box to question his motives and to dilute his authority. In that context, the two-judge bench has acted with wisdom and foresight in preserving the dignity of the institution and in reiterating the role of the CJI in constituting benches.
Significantly, the bench heard this Shanti Bhushan petition despite two separate judgments by the Supreme Court in November 2017 and April 2018 upholding the CJI’s complete administrative authority to allocate cases and constitute benches. But considering that both these judgments were pronounced by benches led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, who could be deemed to be an interested party, it is just as well that a two-judge bench has deliberated on this and ruled in the matter to set any doubts at rest.
In the April 2018 judgment, the Constitution Bench held that “there cannot be any kind of command directing the CJI to constitute a Bench”. That is the convention of the court. The Bench held that no judge can take up or post matters on his own. That authority is the Chief Justice's exclusive domain.
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With the issue of constituting benches now settled, it is time the judges deliberate on reforms in the judiciary, including the powers of appointment of judges and a mechanism to ensure that those appointed are men of merit and unimpeachable integrity.
It is not for the government to decide on the mode of appointment of judges. The judges themselves must act collectively to see if there are any loose ends that need to be tied up.
The issue of long pendency of cases and the need to clear arrears on a war footing need to be addressed speedily and effectively. The cliché ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ cannot remain a mere cliché. It needs to be acted upon.