Unprecedented Judicial Uproar: A Stand-Off between the CJI and the four SC Judges

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The perception underlining a democracy lays forward an image of a country free from discrepancies in a system instituted to promote justice. But what discourse is left to those, who constitute this very system but are left as an audience to mismanagement and arbitrariness, contradicting the ideals set forth in the Grundnorm of this country, viz. the Constitution of India.

To recap, on 13th January 2018, a day which is now termed by few as ‘black day in Indian Judiciary’ or ‘awakening of the long-awaited revolution’, four top Supreme Court judges resorted to a press conference questioning the procedure of case allocation by the Chief Justice of India. J. Jasti Chelameswar, J. Ranjan Gogoi, J. Madan B Lokur and J. Kurian Joseph, the faces of highest decision making authority in India ventilated their grief concerning the way cases are conducted in the Supreme Court.

The matter at issue arose, when ‘rebels with a cause-list’ alleged the SC administration of not being in “order” due to the indifference with CJI Dipak Misra apropos certain prospects, allegedly putting the democracy under the radar of constant threat and thus, endangering apex Court’s integrity and indirectly country’s democracy.  The four judges were disappointed when despite their constant persuasion either through informal vocal dissent and even through a formal letter, the matters were still neglected causing an indirect disruption of the sanctity of the system to some extent.

In the above-mentioned seven-page letter to the CJI, which was released to the media on Friday, 13th Jan, 2018, the four judges went public with their grievances. They asserted instances of cases which had far-reaching consequences for the nation and yet, were assigned by the CJI selectively to the preferential benches without any rationale for the said assignment. The letter cited the irregularity as a particular matter of concern. Along with that, another wave of criticism was directed towards the delay in finalizing the memorandum of procedure (MOP) on which detailed discussions were held by the collegium (comprising the top five judges of the Supreme Court) and submitted by the then Chief Justice to the government in March 2017.

The letter further emphasized on certain conventions which have been a source of reliance since inception but were violated by the CJI in his duty as the master of the roster. The judges did not beat around the bush and simply referred the assignment of the cases a privilege, but not recognition of a superior authority. It was pointed out that the conventions devised are required to be followed for the disciplined and efficient transaction of court business. “He is only the first among equals – nothing more or nothing less,” the judges pointed out. By all means, this is nothing new but it needed an emphasis, for of late, the judiciary seems to be deciding ‘benches on preferences’.  The judges also mooted the need to revisit the process of appointment of judges and to set up a mechanism for taking action against errant judges apart from impeachment.

The inaction of the CJI regarding the letter compelled the judges to conduct a press conference which highlighted the growing rift between senior judges and the CJI. The respective four Judges attended the press conference which was held on the lawns of the CJI’s residence and flagged certain problems. The main agenda advocated during the conference had an inclination that “all was not well in the judiciary and many things which are less than desirable have happened in the last few months.” But the primary contention focused entirely on the manner the CJI exercised his administrative powers and allotted crucial places to benches, apparently bypassing the senior-most judges.

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Following the conference, many opinions were expressed over the entire debacle from the legal fraternity. While some were disappointed with the Judges for dragging the internal matters into public, others expressed their grief over the increasing difference in opinion between the top authority judges.

Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, a retired judge of the Supreme Court termed this incident as ‘Shocking’. He indicated that immediate steps are required to be taken to resolve this issue. However, he opines that these problems should be resolved internally by the Supreme Court administration as public fiasco like this brings distress to the legal and judicial fraternity of the nation. The Attorney General K.K. Venugopal while describing the unprecedented crisis as “a storm in a teacup”, said, “The judges will now have to act in Statesmanship and ensure the divisiveness is wholly neutralized.”

The question that emanates after this furor is whether the top judiciary is being run at arbitrary discretion or internal follies are actually a norm of the day. The issues addressed by the senior Judges call for fallacies in the Supreme Court’s administration which need to be deliberated and determined in an effective manner. Here the role of the CJI becomes of paramount importance. This also raises an impertinent question which deals with the inaction of the CJI concerning this issue. Clearly, he is in the hot seat to deal with this breakdown and act responsibly in order to curb these issues without minimum fuss in public and simultaneously set everything in order like a troubleshooter.

The division among senior judges over the issue of assigning of cases has come at a time when the court is going to take up hot-button issues like the Ayodhya appeal and ‘love jihad’ from Kerala. It is interesting to note that on 15th Jan 2018, the Supreme Court announced the composition of a 5-judge constitution bench headed by the CJI, which does not include the above-mentioned four senior judges. This bench is set to hear a range of matters including those challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act and its 2013 judgment re-criminalizing gay sex between consenting adults.

The proper functioning of the democracy entails an impartial and law-abiding judiciary, which is the common man’s last resort. Overlooking of matters that require the utmost attention can’t be tolerated in the system that is looked upon as the Messiah by the people of this country. The focus should be not on the fact that conference happened but rather its line of sight should only be on the issues raised that forced the senior-most judges of the apex court to risk their jobs and their reputation to come out in the open and question the institution’s working. Yes, nothing comes without a cost in contemporary India and least of all, dissent. This is indeed a matter of grave concern as the last thing a democracy need is people losing faith in the judiciary. “If you lose public’s trust, what remains?”

The authors, Atisha Sisodiya, Ayush Gupta and Neha Chaudhary, are LL.M. scholars at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai.

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