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The Conundrum of the Justice Collegium

“The Chief Justice of India is only the first among equals, nothing more and nothing less.”

Supreme Court

On twelfth January, four of the highest-ranking Supreme Court Justices, excluding the Chief Justice (also known as the Collegium), held a  press conference which broke years of judicial customs and precedent. The assembled Justices—namely J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur, and Kurien Joseph who have, for years, been delivering justice to the people, were now, in turn, asking for the same.

The Justices felt that the Honourable Chief Justice Dipak Misra had been acting arbitrarily and exhibiting a lack of transparency and rational reason while assigning cases to the Justices. They questioned the allocation of specific cases of ‘national importance’ to ‘preferred Benches’  in the top court. Through a letter to the Chief Justice (which was later made public through the Press), they expressed discomfort at the discretionary powers enjoyed by the Chief Justice while allocating cases to the benches through a letter to the Chief Justice himself. “The convention of recognising that CJI as the master of roster while assigning cases to different benches is for the disciplined and efficient transaction of court business, and not a recognition of superior authority,” the letter read.

Press Conference by four senior-most Supreme Court Justices

The Justices, in their press conference, asking the Court to ‘Let the people decide’

While multiple sources within the Supreme Court suggest that Chief Justice Misra was unaware of the four Judges’ plans to speak to the media, most agree that the tension among the senior judges had been an open secret at the Court. Members of the Collegium have,  on multiple occasions, strongly expressed discontent against what they see as missteps by the Chief Justice Misra, and have on occasion served letters of caution or refused to attend meetings. On the most recent occasion, the Collegium had issued a letter to the CJI, airing grievances regarding his practice of assigning important cases, like the Medical College admission scam, to junior judges. However, the Chief maintained inaction.

The issues with the Chief Justice’s judgement was brought forward following the assignment of the case regarding the suspicious death of Justice B.H. Loya. Justice Loya, at the time, was presiding over the politically-sensitive ‘Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake police encounter’ case. This was due to the fact that Amit Shah, President of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was among the accused. Members of Loya’s family had allegedly found inconsistencies in the facts surrounding his death, which was caused by a heart attack while he was in Nagpur, attending a colleague’s daughter’s wedding. A complaint had been filed in early 2015. The Justices claimed that because of the sensitivity and national importance of the issue, the PIL demanding a probe into Justice Loya’s death should have been assigned to members of the Collegium.

The reactions that followed have been vast and varied, each with its own set of implications.  The Prime Minister of the country, Narendra Modi, has in his first public remarks since the conference, stated that the Government and the political parties must stay away from judicial matters and affirmed his faith in the Judiciary, believing it to be well adept in handling the crisis. The Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) had similar, though stronger, sentiments. The SCBA has since also passed an emergency resolution on the crisis in the apex court, which they handed over to Chief Justice Misra on the twenty-second of January, officially bringing him on as a member of the investigation into himself, and effectively ending the involvement of the public in the decision—as the Collegium had wanted.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra

Chief Justice, Dipak Misra, accused of favouritism in the Supreme Court

In response to these allegations, The CJI has decided to set up a bench of three judges, which was scheduled to hear on the Loya case on 22nd January. The Supreme Court, on the fifteenth, also announced the composition of a five-judge Constitution bench that will begin hearing on important cases from 17th January. Among some of the hearings planned are cases like the challenges face by the Aadhar Card, and the challenge against the judgement criminalising homosexual relationships. However, none of the Justices that comprise the Collegium were enlisted in either bench.

Instances of dissent have always been common in the corridors of the Supreme Court—generally stemming due to peer rivalry and the bureaucratic system of promotions. As a senior member confided, “There has always been some degree of peer rivalry within the higher judiciary based on who gets elevated to the SC first, and who gets delayed. That is why, even in the past, there has always been reluctance in accepting the leadership of CJIs,”.

However, what makes this specific event historic is the fact that the Indian Judicial System has always functioned as an independent entity. Though differences have occurred, they have always been handled internally. Another important custom of the members of the Judiciary is their staunch propensity to avoid the press and media. The Judiciary has, ever since its roots in the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, always been an institution that places great significance in their customs and traditions, many of which go so far as to govern some of its actions. Never before, since the inception of the Supreme Court in the year 1950, has a dispute of this level, that transcended the confines of the court been experienced—making the move by the justices highly orthodox and unexpected. What is most radical is that the Justices felt the need to break status-quo to approach the media and through them, the people of the country. This goes a long way in showing just how pertinent the Justices felt this was to the maintaining of democracy in the country.

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