Turmoil in India’s Supreme Court, 4 judges speak out against Chief Justice

Turmoil in India’s Supreme Court, 4 judges speak out against Chief Justice

SAM Report,
Supreme Court judges (L-R) Kurian Joseph, J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi and MB Lokur address the media in New Delhi on Friday. Photo: HT

Simmering differences in the Supreme Court of India bloomed on Friday (Jan 12), with four senior judges publicly criticising the Chief Justice of India (CJI) for his style of administration and over the allocation of cases.

The unexpected press conference, and the not entirely surprising revelations in the statement issued by the judges, resulted in lawyers, politicians, and analysts taking sides, with some insisting that the judges should not have gone public and others countering that they had no other option.

Justice Jasti Chelameswar, who along with Justices Ranjan Gogoi — tipped to be the chief justice after CJI Dipak Misra retires in October — MB Lokur and Kurian Joseph called the conference, said they had been “compelled to call” the conference. “This is an extraordinary event in the history of the nation, more particularly this nation… The administration of the Supreme Court is not in order and many things which are less than desirable have happened in the last few months,” he added.

All the four judges, the four seniormost in the apex court after the CJI, are part of the collegium that selects judges to the apex court and high courts.

The judges said they were forced to speak in public, breaking the settled principle of judicial restraint, because the CJI did not take steps to redress their grievances, which were first raised two months ago. “We wrote a letter to him and tried to persuade the CJI to take steps but failed. A request was made to do a particular thing in a particular manner but it was done in such a way that it left further doubt on the integrity of the institution. Unless the institution of Supreme Court is preserved, democracy won’t survive in this country,” they said.

People close to the CJI refuted the allegations. “All judges in the top court are equal. Work is allocated fairly. A particular judge cannot say he should be given a specific case for hearing. Judicial work is assigned as per the settled procedure,” the person said.

Friday’s events could have a huge impact on the functioning of the higher judiciary, particularly the constitution of benches, appointments to the high courts — most of which are understaffed — and also erode the credibility of the top court.

The tipping point for the four judges seems to be the case of Judge Brijgopal Loya. Two petitions demanding a fair probe into his mysterious death were listed before a bench that is headed by a judge who is 10th in terms of seniority. They believed a matter as serious as this should have been heard by someone more senior.

“Four of us went to the CJI today with a request that a particular thing is not in order and it should be rectified. Despite our request, he did not do anything,” Justice Chelameswar said, without mentioning the Loya case. When asked whether this request was in connection with the Loya case, Justice Gogoi admitted that it was.

Judge Loya, who died under mysterious circumstances in November 2014, was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case dating back to 2004, in which various police officers and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah were named. Shah was discharged in December 2014.

That may have been the tipping point, but trouble in the court has been brewing for some time.

Chelameswar has had run-ins with three CJIs — Justice Misra, Justice TS Thakur and Justice JS Khehar. He stayed away from meetings of the collegium for some time in 2016 and 2017 because he felt this was not the best way to appoint judges.

The current crisis, however, started with two petitions relating to corruption in the Medical Council of India that indirectly levelled allegations against the Chief Justice of India. On November 8, the CJI marked one of the petitions to a particular bench. On November 9, a counsel brought up the other petition and sought an urgent hearing from Justice Chelameswar, who referred it to a five-judge bench. High drama unfolded on November 10, with the CJI convening a special bench and virtually setting aside Justice Chelameswar’s order. The five-judge bench declared the CJI as “master of the roster”. The senior-most judge on the five judge bench after the CJI was Justice RK Agrawal, who is eighth in terms of seniority in the court.