NEW DELHI, APR 15,
A group of five Supreme Court judges had attempted to codify the broad duties of the Chief Justice of India, particularly in allocating cases in his capacity as “Master of the Roster”.
This attempt to “institutionalise” the functions of the CJI was made following the January 12 press conference, when four senior Supreme Court judges had raised questions about the manner in which cases were being allocated in the Supreme Court.
They said recent CJIs have been selectively allocating sensitive and nationally important cases to preferred Benches. They also averred that Chief Justice Misra, despite repeated entreaties from them, had failed to act.
But the talks stopped and the draft proposals remain pending. Instead, the Chief Justice of India published a subject-wise roster.
The objective of trying to codify the manner in which cases are allocated was to mend fences within the Supreme Court. The body of mediators comprised Justices S.A. Bobde, N.V. Ramana, U.U. Lalit and D.Y. Chandrachud (all of whom are potential Chief Justices) and Justice A.K. Sikri.
The group saw this attempt as aimed at trying to “institutionalise and strengthen the practices and conventions in diverse areas under the administration of justice in the Supreme Court of India”. The five mediator judges held hectic parleys with the Chief Justice and the four senior-most judges. They proposed a committee to be formed.
This panel of judges would undertake the work of institutionalising the number of conventions and practices of the Supreme Court.
These conventions of the apex court include that major cases should be heard by the Chief Justice of India, and if not possible by the CJI, the case should go to the second court and so on in the descending order of courts. The constitution of Benches should be as per the seniority of the judges, the Chief Justice’s court should sit in a combination of three judges and five-judge Benches should hear any case involving substantial questions of law in accordance with Article 145 (3) of the Constitution.
The committee would establish as norms the Chief Justice of India’s various duties and functions, primarily as Master of Roster. Once all this was done, it was hoped the norms would be published on the Supreme Court website. The mediators believed this would clear the dark clouds hanging over the institution.
The formation of the committee and who should be the members of the panel were on the agenda of discussions held.
But the talks stopped and the draft proposals remain pending. Instead, the Chief Justice of India published a subject-wise roster. This seems to have met with some oblique criticism from within. In a recent public discussion, when asked why Chief Justice Misra continues to hear all the important cases even after the roster, Justice Chelameswar replied that “He (CJI) is the master of roster… If he has the energy to do the entire work, let him do it.”
On April 13, months after the efforts of the mediator judges, a Bench led by one of them, Justice Sikri, is hearing a petition filed by former union law minister Shanti Bhushan for a check on the authority of the Chief Justice of India as ‘master of roster’. Mr. Bhushan said the authority should not be reduced to an “absolute, singular and arbitrary” power.
However, Justice Sikri wondered whether issues like allocation of cases among Supreme Court judges should be taken up at all on the judicial side. He said the procedure for allocation of cases to judges was an “in-house” affair and judges should be left to evolve a “self-governing mechanism”.
Justice Chandrachud, who was also part of the mediator team, authored a judgment on April 11. In this, it was held that the Chief Justice of India has the “exclusive prerogative” to allocate cases and constitute Benches. The judgment came on a petition to evolve a “set procedure” for constituting Benches and allotment of cases.
The April 11 judgment reiterated a November 2017 judgment by a five-judge Constitution Bench which had declared the CJI’s absolute dominance as master of roster. This Constitution Bench judgment had preceded the January 12 press meet. Chief Justice Misra had led both the Constitution Bench and the three-judge Bench, which pronounced the April 11 judgment.