It’s not every day that sitting judges of the Supreme Court decide to go public in order to highlight issues with the judicial system.
But this is exactly what happened on January 12, 2018, when four senior-most judges of Supreme Court (SC) held a press conference to speak out against the allegedly arbitrary ways of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra in assigning important cases to benches headed by relatively junior SC judges.
Saying that they had no option but to hold the conference, the four judges strongly criticised the Chief Justice of India for his incorrect interpretation of the ‘Master Of Roster’ theory.
Here’s all you need to know about what transpired:
Q: Who addressed the media at this conference?
A: The media interaction was organised by the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court Of India – Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph.
Q: Why did the judges call the press conference?
A: The judges said that they were forced to call the conference after noticing that the administration of the Court was not in order. “The four of us are convinced that unless this institution is preserved and it maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive in this country,” Justice J Chelameswar said on the lawns of his residence.
They added that the decision to hold the Press conference was only reached after collective attempts to persuade the CJI to take remedial measures failed entirely. The current situation, they added, was hampering the integrity of the judiciary.
In the conference, Justice Chelameswar, who was speaking on behalf of the other judges, also released a letter written by them to the CJI two months ago.
The letter has attacked the theory of “CJI being the master of the roster” cited by the CJI while deciding benches.
They also raised a flag against the way the court has dealt with finalising the new memorandum of procedures, guidelines that guard the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and High Courts.
“There have been instances with cases with far-reaching consequences for the nation and institution has been assigned by the Chief Justice of this court selectively to the benches of their preferences without any rational basis for such assignments. This must be guarded against at all costs,” the four judges added.
Q: What is the ‘master of roster’ theory? And why is it being criticised?
A: In November last year, after high voltage drama in the courtroom, a constitution bench led by CJI had declared that it is the prerogative of the Chief Justice Of India to decide what case has to be heard by which judge, making him the ‘master of the roster’.
This order was passed by the CJI-led-bench annulling an earlier order passed by a two-judge bench led by Justice J. Chelameswar a day ago to constitute a bench of five senior-most judges of the SC to hear a corruption case on November 13, 2017. However, the CJI ruled that no one can ask him to form any bench.
The four judges who held the conference said that the rules make him “only the first amongst the equals, nothing more or nothing less.”
Q: What corruption case are we talking about here?
A: The case being referred to is the medical college scam case. The case, investigated by the CBI, In the FIR filed, alleged that a conspiracy was hatched by certain persons, including a former Odisha HC judge and a hawala leader to bribe SC judges hearing the case of a debarred private medical college. CJI Mishra was leading the bench that decided this case.
Arising from two separate petitions, the petitions had sought an SIT probe into the corruption case. However, both pleas said that Chief Justice Misra should not be part of any proceedings in the case.
Finding the allegations in the FIR disturbing, Justice Chelameswar’s Bench, which heard one of the petitions, ordered a five-judge Constitution Bench to convene on November 13, but soon CJI Mishra constituted a separate bench and ruled the master of the roster doctrine.
This case was later dismissed by the CJI led bench and a cost of 25 lakhs was imposed on the petitioners.
Q: Have there been other instances where the CJI formed benches that didn’t go down well with other judges?
A: Yes. Apart from the college scam, the other case where a similar contention arose was the hearing of a plea that sought an independent probe into Justice Loya’s death.
Loya was presiding over the case relating to the fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, in which Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was an accused. Loya died in December 2014.
In November, shocking revelations raising doubts about circumstances surrounding Loya’s death came out.
Taking note of developments, the Bombay High Court admitted a petition seeking a probe into Loya’s death on Jan 10. It was supposed to hear the matter on January 23, but the Supreme Court intervened in the matter on Friday and heard a similar petition filed before it, despite objections from lawyers. This case was allotted to Justices Arun Mishra and MM Shantanagoudar, who issued notices to the Maharastra government, currently headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party seeking a response.
Questions are being raised from some quarters about the decision of the Supreme Court to hear this petition, considering the fact that the Bombay High Court was already seized of the matter.
Q: What do lawyers/ lawmakers have to say about this conference?
A: The press conference has received a mixed response from various quarters. While those like Indira Jaising hailed the historic nature of the conference, others have called the conference as something that will “set a bad precedent”.
“I think, we, the people of India, have a right to know what is going on within the judiciary,” Jaising said.
While Soli Sorabjee, the former attorney-general, expressed his displeasure with the press conference. “I wish the four Supreme Court judges hadn’t done this. This will have severe repercussions on the judiciary.”
“I think all four judges should be impeached, they have no business to sit there and deliver verdicts anymore,” retired Supreme Court Justice RS Sodhi told The Indian Express.
“Four get together and show the chief justice in a poor light. It is immature and childish behaviour,” Sodhi said, adding that such “trade unionism” was wrong.