Insights into Editorial: Restoring order in the court

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Insights into Editorial: Restoring order in the court


Context:

In an unprecedented move, the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference and raised a banner of revolt against the Chief Justice of India. They alleged that the CJI has been assigning cases, which have far-reaching consequences to the nation, selectively to Benches of his preference, thus ignoring well established convention.

In justification of their otherwise objectionable conduct on these issues, they said they had been left with no other option. They said there was an immediate need to preserve the judiciary system in the country if democracy has to be protected. 

Divided opinion

Naturally, this incident has sent shock waves across the country in general and in the legal circles in particular.

  • Many former judges, eminent jurists, and senior counsel have found the conduct of the four judges to be highly disagreeable.
  • They feel that the image and reputation of the judiciary has been tarnished, and the confidence of the people in the judiciary shaken.

However, a few former judges and lawyers have sought to justify the action by asserting that the judges had no other choice as their repeated pleas to the CJI did not bring about the desired result.

  • They also feel that it is more important to address the issues raised by the judges rather than find fault with them for going public.
  • According to them, disapproval of the form of protest must not cloud the substance of the grievances.

It is a development that is both momentous and unfortunate

The press conference held by four senior judges of the Supreme Court has exposed an unprecedented level of disagreement in the top echelons of the judiciary. 

It is regrettable that the banner of revolt has been raised in such a public way against the Chief Justice of India.

Regardless of who is right in the current dispute over the administrative functioning of the CJI, the reverberations of what took place will not easily subside and will be felt for a long time to come.

The question is whether it could have been handled internally rather than be dragged into the open like this. 

It is clear that 4 judges’ grievances are rooted in their perception that CJI is misusing his administrative powers to assign cases with far-reaching consequences “selectively”, disregarding conventions on allocation of judicial work.

Logically, this is an internal matter of the judiciary, one that is best settled through deliberations in a full court meeting of all the Supreme Court judges themselves.

Cause of differences among judges

Judicial work is primarily allocated based on a roster, and individual cases are allotted to Benches based on the category under which they fall. Once the roster is fixed, the CJI should ordinarily see that it is duly followed. Exceptions must be rare, and that too only for compelling reasons.

In an unusual order, regarding controversial Prasad Education Trust case, a Division Bench went ahead to delineate the composition of the Bench to hear the case, in which charges of judicial corruption were made, coupled with hints that there would be a conflict of interest if CJI were to hear it.

Eventually, a five-judge Bench headed by CJI overturned the order and asserted that the CJI was indeed the master of the roster and that he alone could assign cases and decide on the composition of benches. 

Government must stay away from the internal conflict in the Judiciary

The conduct of the government in maintaining silence on the developments is commendable. The Central government has also rightly made its position clear that this being an internal matter of the judiciary, it will not intervene.

Rather than be inexplicably silent, it must disclose its position on the Memorandum of Procedure for judicial appointments and communicate this clearly to the Supreme Court. One of the specific issues raised in the letter written by the four judges relates to this issue. They have suggested that since the Centre had not responded to the MoP, effectively it was deemed to have been accepted.

Way ahead

The CJI is the first among equals and he is the captain who has to carry the whole team with him, while enjoying their goodwill and support.

  • Rather than brush away the concerns of the four judges, the Chief Justice must convene a meeting of the full court and give them a patient and careful hearing.
  • Disapproval of the form of their protest must not cloud the substance of their grievances.
  • The stand taken by the Bar Council of India and the Supreme Court Bar Association is also praiseworthy. Both have urged the Supreme Court judges to discuss the issues and settle them amicably by themselves.
  • It is best that there is no more airing of differences in public and that this incident is regarded by posterity as an aberration rather than a precedent.

Conclusion

About a year ago, the executive and the judiciary were publicly, and often very strongly, disagreeing over judicial appointments. An internal rift in the judiciary is far more serious. It poses the risk of diminishing the image of the judiciary and the esteem it enjoys in society. This institution has illumined national life for more than six decades, but a dark shadow hangs over it now. It is a moment for collective introspection.

Let us hope that all the judges of the Supreme Court, including the CJI, will sort out their differences amicably and find a satisfactory solution to the problem.