Turmoil in Supreme Court as four judges speak out against Chief Justice Dipak Misra
Simmering differences in the Supreme Court of India bloomed on Friday, 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 MCI row
More was to follow.
The four have also taken strong exception to the way a case related to the so-called Memorandum of Procedure (between the government and the court to decide the way to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the high courts) was dealt with and disposed. On October 27, a bench of justices AK Goel and UU Lalit had issued notice to the attorney general on the issue. Such a matter, the four judges said on Friday in their statement, should have either been dealt by a Constitution bench or taken up at the CJI’s conference and the full court comprising all judges of the SC. The CJI on November 8 constituted a special bench of three judges to recall the October 27 order.
The government viewed Friday’s developments cautiously and came up with a guarded response. “The judiciary is reputed the world over and independent. They will resolve it themselves,” said PP Chaudhary, junior law minister.
The opposition lost no time in making it a political issue. Communist Party of India leader D Raja called on Justice Chelameswar at his house and the Congress asked for a bench of the seniormost judges in the Supreme Court to hear the Loya case. Congress president Rahul Gandhi said: “They (the judges) made a point about judge Loya’s case. I think that is also something that needs to be investigated properly. It needs to be looked at from the highest level of the Supreme Court.”
The country’s top law officer, Attorney General KK Venugopal, said the judges could have avoided going public. “As a result of this, the media is speaking only about this matter and it is being blown up out of proportion. The result is that the public may lose confidence in the institution itself. It is necessary that the judges show statesmanship, wisdom and experience. They should swiftly move to resolve the difference within the next two days so there is harmony and peace.”
Jurists and legal experts see the development as a black day in the history of Indian judiciary, and advised that disputes should be resolved amicably. “People come to the Supreme Court with an expectation of resolving their problems. But today’s development has given an impression that the judiciary cannot sort out its own differences. This gives a wrong impression to the public,” former Chief Justice TS Thakur said.
Justice RM Lodha, who retired as CJI in 2014, said: “It was disappointing to see such senior judges airing their differences in public. CJI, as the leader of the show, must show his statesmanship and ensure no further damage is caused to the institution. If there are any grievances, he should address them.”
Former attorney general of India Soli Sorabjee said he was very upset: “The judges of the Supreme Court are not shareholders in a public limited company,” he said. “The chief justice has the prerogative of allocating and assigning cases to different benches and assuming the judges had a grievance ... they should have sorted it out.... and not by calling a press conference which is utterly unbecoming of the Supreme Court of India,” he added.
However, former Supreme Court Bar Association president and senior counsel Dushyant Dave lauded the action of the four judges. “There was no other way to handle the situation. The country should know something is ailing the system,” Dave said.
“We were left with no choice except to communicate it to the nation that please take care of the institution...Don’t want wise men saying 20 years from now that we sold our souls,” Justice Chelameswar said during the conference.
“There have been instances where a case having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned by Chief Justice of this court selectively to benches without rationale basis. This must be guarded against at all costs,” read the judges’ letter to the CJI. “We are not mentioning details only to avoid embarrassing the institution but note that such departures have already damaged the image of this institution to some extent.”
All the judges dismissed questions on whether they have broken ranks. Justice Gogoi said, “It’s a discharge of debt to the nation which we have done.”
Asked whether the four wanted the CJI to be impeached, Justice Chelameswar said: “Don’t try to put words in my mouth.”