The cracks in the Supreme Court edifice became visible on January 12 as “Big Four” judges in an unprecedented move accused the Chief Justice Dipak Misra of not strictly adhering to rules in assigning cases to appropriate benches which they said can create “doubt” about the institutional integrity of the apex court.
Speaking to the media at the residence of Justice J. Chelameswar, the judges said the Supreme Court administration was “not in order”. They also released an undated letter they wrote to Justice Misra in which they conceded that the Chief Justice was the master of the roster but this was “not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual of the Chief Justice over his colleagues”.
The press conference tantamount to a judicial coup within the top court as four senior-most judges after the CJI – Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph and Madan B. Lokur besides Justice Chelameswar – failed to convince the judicial patriarch over the issue in their last-minute effort this morning before they went public.
Justice Chelameswar said at a hurriedly convened press conference that the press conference is “an extraordinary event in the history of the judiciary and more particularly in this nation, even for this institution (Supreme Court)… Many things less than desirable have happened in the last few months. We owe a responsibility to the institution and the nation. We tried to collectively persuade the Chief Justice that certain things are not in order and remedial measures are necessary. Unfortunately, our efforts have failed in convincing the Chief Justice of India to take steps to protect this institution.”
The judges, however, did not refer to any particular matter the Chief Justice had decided in assigning benches. Asked specifically if they were upset over reference of the matter seeking a probe into the suspicious death of Special CBI Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, Justice Gogoi said: “Yes.” But in the seven-page letter, they said they were not mentioning details only to avoid embarrassing the institution because “such departures have already damaged the image of this institution to some extent”.
The disharmony among the judges has reportedly been simmering since Justice Misra junked an order passed by Justice J Chelameswar in November last, and declared that the Chief Justice was the “master of the roster”. The CJI had given the order a day after a two-judge bench headed by Justice Chelameswar had passed an order that a five-judge bench of senior most judges in the apex court should be set up to consider an independent probe into an MCI corruption case in which bribes were allegedly taken in the name of settling cases pending before Supreme Court judges.
Holding that the Chief Justice was only the first among equals, the judges contended that in a matter of determination of roster there were well-settled and time-honored conventions guiding the Chief Justice, be it the convention dealing with the strength of the bench required to deal with a particular case or the composition thereof.
“A necessary corollary to the above-mentioned principle is the members of any multi-numbered judicial body, including this court, would not arrogate to themselves the authority to deal with and pronounce upon matters which ought to be heard by appropriate benches, both composition-wise and strength-wise with due regard to the roster fixed”, they wrote in the letter. They further said any departure from the two rules would not only lead to “unpleasant and undesirable consequences” of creating doubt in the body politic about the integrity of the institution.
Of late, the twin rules mentioned above have not been strictly adhered to, lamented the judges. There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned selectively to the benches without any rational basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against at all cost. “Democracy won’t survive without free judiciary… We are left with no choice but to take this before the nation”, observed Justice Chelameswar. In response to a question about impeaching the CJI, he said it was for the nation to decide.
The explosive press conference has caused tremors across the country, remarked a senior advocate Prashant Yadav. He said that the problems enunciated by the SC judges are not new. He hoped that the full house court should deliberate and evolve a robust mechanism to restore the public faith.
There are reports that the Centre’s Narendra Modi government immediately went into huddle to discuss the fallout of today’s critical development. The PMO is reportedly holding talks with the law ministry.