Reiterating that the Chief Justice of India is “the first among equals” with the “exclusive prerogative” to allocate cases and constitute benches, a Supreme Court bench led by the CJI Wednesday said “there cannot be a presumption of mistrust” about the discharge of the CJI’s Constitutional responsibilities.
Dismissing a PIL that sought directions to regulate the CJI’s power to form benches and allocate cases, the bench of CJI Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud sought to dispel the senior-junior judges notion, saying they are “invested with the equal duty of adjudicating cases which come to the court and are assigned by the Chief Justice” and “seniority in terms of appointment has no bearing on which cases a judge should hear”.
The bench said “in his capacity as a judge, the Chief Justice is primus inter pares: the first among equals. In the discharge of his other functions, the Chief Justice of India occupies a position which is sui generis” — in a class by itself.
The ruling comes more than four months after a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court asserted that the CJI alone had the power to draw up benches and allot work to them. This was also reaffirmed a few days later by a three-judge bench which dismissed a plea seeking a court-monitored probe into a medical college admission scam allegedly involving former Orissa High Court judge I M Quddusi. But the controversy over the allocation of work by the CJI in the Supreme Court refused to ebb as its four most senior judges — Justices J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph — called an unprecedented press conference on January 12 to raise questions about the conduct of the CJI, especially on allocation of work.
Justice Chandrachud, who wrote the judgment for the bench, said: “Article 146 reaffirms the position of the Chief Justice of India as the head of the institution. From an institutional perspective, the Chief Justice is placed at the helm of the Supreme Court. In the allocation of cases and the constitution of benches, the Chief Justice has an exclusive prerogative.”
The judgment said “as a repository of constitutional trust, the Chief Justice is an institution in himself. The authority which is conferred upon the Chief Justice, it must be remembered, is vested in a high constitutional functionary. The authority is entrusted to the Chief Justice because such an entrustment of functions is necessary for the efficient transaction of the administrative and judicial work of the Court.”
The judges said that “the ultimate purpose behind the entrustment of authority to the Chief Justice is to ensure that the Supreme Court is able to fulfil and discharge constitutional obligations which govern and provide the rationale for its existence. The entrustment of functions to the Chief Justice as the head of the institution, is with the purpose of securing the position of the Supreme Court as an independent safeguard for the preservation of personal liberty. There cannot be a presumption of mistrust. The oath of office demands nothing less.”
Petitioner Ashok Pande, a lawyer, wanted the Supreme Court to evolve a set procedure for constituting benches and allotting work to them. He also sought changes in the Rules of Procedure of the court to the effect that Chief Justice will share a three-judge bench with the two most senior judges and Constitution Benches will comprise five most senior judges or three most senior judges and two most junior judges.
He sought bifurcation of the apex court into a “Supreme criminal court” with similar divisions to hear PIL, tax, service, land disputes and miscellaneous matters. Pande also sought similar directions for formation of benches and allotment of work for the Allahabad High Court.
Rejecting his demand, the court said “underlying the submission that the constitution of Benches and the allocation of cases by the Chief Justice must be regulated by a procedure cast in iron is the apprehension that absent such a procedure, the power will be exercised arbitrarily” and that some of the petitioner’s averments were scandalous.
The judgment referred to the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and said Rule 1 indicated that it was the Chief Justice who should nominate the judges to a Bench to hear a matter. “Where a reference has been made to a larger bench, the bench making the reference is required to refer the matter to the Chief Justice who will constitute a bench,” it pointed out. This was a “binding elucidation of the authority of the Chief Justice of India” and hence “the relief which the petitioner seeks is manifestly misconceived”, the three judges said.
“The Supreme Court has been authorised under Article 145 to frame rules of procedure. A mandamus of the nature sought cannot be issued. Similarly, the petitioner is not entitled to seek a direction that benches of this court should be constituted in a particular manner or, as he seeks, that there should be separate divisions of this court. The former lies exclusively in the domain of the prerogative powers of the Chief Justice,” the judgment stressed.
On Pande’s demand that the CJI should sit with the two most senior judges on a three-judge bench and that Constitution benches must consist of five most senior judges or three most senior judges and two most junior judges, it said there was “no Constitutional foundation” to accept this.
“For one thing, this would intrude into the exclusive duty and authority of the Chief Justice to constitute benches and to allocate cases to them,” it said, adding that the petitioner seemed to harbour a “misconception that certain categories of cases or certain courts must consist only of the senior-most in terms of appointment”.
The bench said it was a “settled position that a judgment delivered by a judge speaks for the court (except in the case of a concurring or dissenting opinion). The Constitution makes a stipulation in Article 124(3) for the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court from the High Courts, from the Bar and from amongst distinguished jurists.
Appointment to the Supreme Court is conditioned upon the fulfilment of the qualifications prescribed for the holding of that office under Article 124(3). Once appointed, every judge of the court is entitled to and in fact, duty-bound, to hear such cases as are assigned by the Chief Justice.”
“Judges drawn from the High Courts are appointed to this court after long years of service. Members of the Bar who are elevated to this court similarly are possessed of wide and diverse experience gathered during the course of the years of practice at the Bar. To suggest that any judge would be more capable of deciding particular cases or that certain categories of cases should be assigned only to the senior-most among the judges of the Supreme Court has no foundation in principle or precedent. To hold otherwise would be to cast a reflection on the competence and ability of other judges to deal with all cases assigned by the Chief Justice notwithstanding the fact that they have fulfilled the qualifications mandated by the Constitution for appointment to the office,” the judges said.