A fixed term for CJI is a good idea, but judicial appointments must be more transparent.
The outgoing chief justice of India, P. Sathasivam, has advocated a fixed tenure for the CJI. The proposal should be considered by the next government. The CJI is an extraordinarily powerful office, and a fixed term for its occupant could help streamline not just its functions, but also its responsibilities. The CJI is the head of the Indian judiciary as well as the CEO of the Supreme Court, playing an influential role in the composition of benches, allotment of final case hearings, selection of issues to be heard by constitution benches and, above all, elevation of judges to the high court and SC. This juggling of roles is complicated by the term usually being limited to months, with judges elevated to the post briefly before the retirement age of 65.
The last decade has seen no less than seven CJIs; this year alone, three judges would have taken the helm. Justice Kamal Narain Singh, who assumed the CJI’s office in 1991, held it for a sum total of 17 days. The relatively brief period that a CJI has in office undermines any initiative or vision the individual has for the court. The problem of judicial backlog, for instance, is one that requires the sustained effort and attention of the CJI, right down to the trial courts. A system prone to frequent changes in leadership is hardly conducive to such a reform project.
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That said, a fixed term for the CJI cannot be divorced from the issue of judicial appointments. It is no secret that appointments to the SC can be influenced, although not determined, by the prospect of a judge’s elevation to the highest post on the basis of seniority. Such an approach is susceptible to lobbying from high courts as well as influential political quarters, and does little to shore up public trust in the collegium’s functioning. If a CJI were to have a fixed term — and thus ample opportunity to steer the court’s mandate, vision and constitution — it becomes all the more necessary to ensure that appointments to the SC are made more transparent. Sadly, the collegium has remained an institution without accountability.
The Judicial Appointments Commission, in contrast, may offer a better alternative in that it incorporates views from senior SC judges as well as the government and the opposition. If the SC’s leadership is in favour of fixed terms, it must also reform its current system of appointments, make it more accountable.