[dropcap]A[/dropcap] two-judge bench comprising Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan dismissed a petition filed by the former Union Law Minister and Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan, challenging the power conferred on the Chief Justice of India as the “Master of Roster” and the “unbridled and discretionary power” which comes along with it hampering the independence and democracy of the judiciary.
Sikri J. says in view of binding precedents it is difficult to accept the expression “CJI” as a collegium of five senior most judges.
— The Leaflet (@TheLeaflet_in) July 6, 2018
For the third time in eight months, the SC affirmed the CJI as being the “Master of Roster”. Justice Sikri in his opinion, with the concurrence of Justice Bhushan’s opinion, upheld the CJI’s powers to allocate cases to different benches of the Court, without the need to consult other judges, even with the CJI being first among equals. He further held that even though the Constitution is silent on the CJI’s position as the “Master of Roster”, it finds its basis as a healthy practice necessary to maintain the discipline and decorum of the Court.
The Court heavily relied upon the Asok Pande judgement, establishing that the CJI cannot be a collegium of the five senior-most judges, and has to be the designated individual.
The petition had contended that the authority of the Chief Justice of India as master of roster is not an “absolute, arbitrary, singular” power that is vested in the Chief Justice alone and which may be exercised by him in consultation with the senior judges of the Supreme Court in keeping with the various pronouncements of the Supreme Court. He emphasised on the jurisprudence that the Chief Justice is the “first amongst equals” and hence shouldn’t be entrusted with such wide discretionary powers. He further went on to state that the collective opinion of a collegium of senior judges is much safer than the opinion of the Chief Justice alone.
Court today heavily relied upon binding precedents including the latest one in Asok Pande judgment reaffirming CJI’s prerogative to assign cases.
— The Leaflet (@TheLeaflet_in) July 6, 2018
The petition had raised serious questions relating to the functioning of the Registry of the Supreme Court of India, inter-alia, in “listing matters” so as to list matters of general public importance and/or politically sensitive issues before only certain benches contrary to the Supreme Court Rules, Handbook of Procedures and conventions.
Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan had also cited various cases in which instances of abuse of power of listing matters and/or re-constituting Benches and assigning matters to such Benches completely contrary to the Rules and the Handbook of Procedure including W.P. (Criminal) 169 of 2017 Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms v. Union of India, Civil Appeal No.10660/2010 Centre for Public Interest Litigation v. Union of India (2G Case), Writ Petition (Civil) 494 of 2012 (Aadhaar Case) etc.
In addition, the petitioner had observed a trend in the allocation of the matters by the CJI as per the issues such as criminal matters are majorly dealt with Court Room No. 1,2,3,5,6,8,10, “land acquisition and requisition matters” are generally allocated to Court Room No. 2,4,10, “service matters” are similarly allotted to Court Room No. 4,5,8 and 10 and so on. Also, the petition was accompanied with a letter to the Secretary General, Supreme Court of India that since in this present matter, the CJI has been impleaded himself, he should neither hear the case nor decide the roster for the hearing of the case.
The Supreme Court subsequently sought the assistance from the Attorney General K K Venugopal on this sensitive matter. The Attorney General on April 27, 2018 told the bench of Justice A K Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan that the “Chief Justice was the master of roster and has full power to allocate cases and maintain discipline”. He further submitted that vesting the case allocation with multi-member collegium instead of the Chief Justice would create multiple authority and result in “conflict and chaos”. As per him, if all the judges of the Apex Court or collegium decide the allocation, then each judge would express a preference and the judicial system would “collapse”. To substantiate his submissions, he referred to various judgments in which the essence of Chief Justice as the master of roster was emphasised.
It is pertinent to note here that this petition by Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan had come after one such PIL filed by Advocate Asok Pande seeking for the framing of guidelines for case allocation was dismissed by a bench of Justice Dipak Misra, Justice A M Khanwilkar and Justice D Y Chandrachud. The Bench declared the Chief Justice of India as an “institution in itself” with “exclusive prerogative” to constitute Benches and allocate cases. They further stated that Pande’s petition was “scandalous” and suffered from “fundamental fallacy”. A Constitutional Bench headed by the CJI Dipak Misra had earlier in November 2017 declared the CJI as the “master of roster”.