Coming straight to the nub of the matter, let me begin at the very beginning by pointing out that after an unprecedented press conference by four senior-most Supreme Court Judges on January 12 over “selective” allocation of cases and amid subsequent parleys to resolve the huge rift, the frozen ice and the huge deadlock has now finally been broken. The Chief Justice of India – Dipak Misra on February 1 published a subjectwise roster for allocation of cases to various Benches. These would be implemented from February 5.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration if it is concluded that this should have been the norm right from the beginning but it is better to be late than never! The publication of such a roster is a first in the history of the Supreme Court. All credit for it must go to those four Judges who took the great risk risking their own career in the process especially Justice Ranjan Gogoi who is due to take over after the present CJI Dipak Misra retires later this year in November. Justice Gogoi has taken the biggest risk of his life and he has an impeccable record throughout his life and one cannot but appreciate his forthright nature in coming out totally in the open without bothering about antagonizing the present CJI as well as the Centre!
To put things in perspective, the move follows a decision of a Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra declaring the Chief Justice of India’s dominance as the master of the roster in order to protect the Supreme Court from “anarchy”. The five-Judge Bench, on in 2017, had proclaimed that it was the Chief Justice’s sole prerogative to decide what case has to be heard by which Judge. There can be no denying or disputing this!
To be sure, it had effectively nullified a judicial order passed by the Apex Court’s number two Judge, Justice Jasti Chelameswar to constitute a Bench of the five seniormost Supreme Court Judges to hear a PIL petition for an SIT probe into the Lucknow medical college scam involving an alleged conspiracy to bribe Supreme Court Judges for a favourable order. A Bench led by CJI Dipak Misra had heard the medical college case. A huge controversy had erupted over the composition of the Judges in the roster.
As it turned out, in a sharp departure from past practice where any matter could be allocated to any Bench, Chief Justice of India – Dipak Misra on February 1 had issued a new roster indicating the nature of cases that would be listed before 12 Benches. This latest move is being seen as addressing the grievance of the four seniormost Judges who were not happy with the CJI allotting important cases to any Judge of his own choice even though he/she was much junior as compared to the senior Judges!
Simply put, the new roster shows that the CJI has kept the PIL jurisdiction entirely to the Bench he is presiding over. None of the four seniormost and Collegium Judges – Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph have PILs assigned to their rosters. This again is not correct. Why should four seniormost Judges not hear PILs? But some other positive changes have certainly been made in this roster system!
Truth be told, the Chief Justice’s Bench roster includes PILs, letter petitions, social justice cases, election matters, habeas corpus cases, contempt of court, criminal and all ordinary civil matters, appointments of constitutional functionaries, matters regarding Commissions of Enquiry, disputes on statutory appointments and law officers along with criminal cases. While PILs would be listed only before the Bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, there is an overlapping of work assigned to different benches as social justice matters would be listed both before the Bench of CJI and that headed by Justice Madan B Lokur. Besides matters pertaining to social justice, Justice Lokur’s Bench will hear matters involving environment protection and conservation, mines, minerals and mining leases.
It is noteworthy that similarly, matters pertaining to religious and charitable endowments will be listed before six different benches. If Bench headed by Justice Lokur is essentially seen as social justice bench, the Bench headed by Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman is being viewed as one largely dealing with corporate matters rooted in company law, mercantile law and commercial transactions. Similarly, Justice J Chelameswar who is the second senior most Judge after the CJI will hear petitions relating to 14 category of cases.
It must be recalled here that on January 12, the four seniormost Judges – Justice Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph had in an unprecedented press conference alleged arbitrary conference alleged arbitrary allocation of work by the CJI and demanded transparency. It is purely because of their outspokenness that we see finally the CJI Dipak Misra relenting and agreeing to bring out roster to allot cases. Had they not spoken out in the media, things would have continued to simmer but nothing would have changed on the ground!
It must also be recalled here that after the press conference, there were hectic parleys that involved the Judges of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and the Bar Council of India to defuse the crisis. The role played by each of them in defusing the unprecedented supreme crisis in the Supreme Court must be lauded. The SCBA headed by its President – Vikas Singh had come out with a resolution that the Apex Court should follow a roster system for the allocation of matters to the Judges as was prevalent in the Delhi High Court. According to sources, some of the Judges had also suggested to the CJI to examine the roster system prevalent in the Bombay High Court. In fact, this roster system must be implemented not just in Supreme Court alone but also in all the High Courts and not just few as we see right now!
It cannot be lost on us that there are at present 12 Benches headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and also comprising Justices Chelameswar, Gogoi, Lokur, Joseph, AK Sikri, SA Bobde, RK Agrawal, NV Ramana, Arun Mishra, AK Goel and Nariman. The Bench headed by Justice AK Sikri will exclusively hear appeals against the orders of statutory bodies. It also must be mentioned here that the matters pertaining to employees in top court, High Courts and the subordinate courts, armed forces and paramilitary forces, personnel law, civil and criminal matters, land acquisition and requisition matters, land laws and agricultural tenancies and matter pertaining to educational institutions have been entrusted to various benches.
As per the roster, the Bench headed by Justice Chelameswar who is the senior-most Judge after the CJI even though he is due to retire soon would deal with matters related to judicial officers, employees of the Supreme Court, High Courts, District Courts and Tribunals for hearings. The Bench will also deal with matters like labour, indirect tax, land acquisition and requisition, compensation, criminal matters, etc.
Going forward, Justice Ranjan Gogoi who is tipped to be the next CJI and who during the press conference had answered in affirmative the concern over the allocation of the PILs pertaining to the late special CBI Judge BH Loya to a Bench headed by a particular Judge has been allocated matters pertaining to labour, indirect tax, company law, MRTP, TRAI, SEBI, RBI, criminal matters, contempt of court, personal law, religious and charitable endowments, mercantile laws, commercial transactions including banking etc. He will also hear matters related to judicial officers, state excise-trading in liquor-privileges, licences and distilleries and breweries.
Now coming to Justice Madan B Lokur. He has been allocated matters including service, social justice, personal laws, land acquisition, mines and minerals and consumer protection. He will also hear matters related to ecological imbalance, protection and conservation of forests throughout the country, protection of wild life, ban on felling trees and falling of underground water level. Justice Kurian Joseph’s Bench has been assigned to deal with matters including labour, rent act, family law, contempt of court, personal law etc. He will also hear matters related to religious and charitable endowments and all land laws and agriculture tenancies.
Now coming to Justice Arun Mishra who became the root cause of the controversy as he was given important cases by CJI even though he figured low in the seniority list. The roster has assigned to him matters related to admission and transfer of candidates in engineering and medical colleges which recently saw a sitting High Court Judge – SN Shukla and a retired High Court Judge of Odisha – IM Quddusi caught on the wrong foot. Quddusi was even arrested as part of the probe. Justice Mishra will hear matters related to all admissions/transfers to engineerings and medical colleges, allocation of 15 percent all-India quota in admissions/transfers to medical colleges and establishment and recognition of educational institutions. He will also hear labour, land acquisition, service, criminal, family law and ordinary civil cases. But he has been divested of the PIL matters. He had also recently recused himself from hearing the PILs related to the death of Special CBI Judge BH Loya who was dealing with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case in which the name of BJP President Amit Shah had cropped up!
Be it noted, the rosters of the four seniormost Judges who had called the joint press conference have been changed to some extent. Now the distribution of matters to different Benches have been made absolutely clear. This is certainly a good thing and a good beginning has been made. This is also clearly an acknowledgement that “something was amiss” in the earlier system and this was certainly a “moral victory” for the stand taken by the four seniormost Judges! Now let us see how this gets implemented in the days ahead!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.