Attorney General K K Venugopal Friday backed the position of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) as the Master of the Roster, saying the role involves not just allocation of cases but “requires decision on several aspects and that is not something that five (the Collegium) or all of them (judges) can sit and thrash it out”.
Responding to a petition by senior advocate Shanti Bhushan who questioned the CJI as the Master of Roster and wanted allocation of cases to be decided by either the Collegium or the full court — the order on the petition was later reserved — Venugopal told the bench of Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan that “this is not like the appointment of judges… where the judges (of the Collegium) are not personally involved (they decide on the files of others). Here, they are personally involved, and each may want to hear cases of a particular jurisdiction”.
“This very exercise is different from selecting judges for elevation. This requires decision on several aspects and that is not something that five (the Collegium) or all of them (judges) can sit and thrash it out,” Venugopal said.
On the plea that the full court sit together and decide the roster and allocation, he said when such a collective decision is made, each may have a view and may ask why a particular case has not been given to him or her. “This conflict is what is contemplated. It can happen. Then the whole thing can result in utter chaos,” he said.
The Attorney General cited an earlier Supreme Court order which had upheld findings of the Allahabad High Court that “the Chief Justice enjoys a special status and he alone can assign work to a judge sitting alone and to judges sitting in a division bench or full bench… If judges were free to choose their jurisdiction or any choice was given to them to do whatever case they may like to hear and decide, the machinery of the court would collapse and judicial work of the court would cease…”
At this, Justice Sikri said: “That is, if some of the judges say what they want. But why not decide collectively?” Venugopal said this is not possible as “there can be internecine disputes among judges” and someone will be required to take a final call. He pointed out that the Collegium system has not been free from criticism. “You will find that any number of authors have criticised the Collegium taking power to itself”.
Justice Sikri said from his experience in the High Courts, there are instances when judges sometime go to the Chief Justice and request that cases of some particular jurisdiction be allotted to them. “They may also express their displeasure” when it is not done, he said.
Countering Venugopal, advocate Prashant Bhushan, who appeared on behalf Shanti Bhushan, said if judges can have their interests, so can the CJI. Hence, it is safer if a collective decision is taken, he said.
But Venugopal said the suggestion that all judges sit together and decide allocation of cases is not practical and will be an “unending exercise”.
“It will be a mistake to proceed on the basis that the Master of Roster business is only about allocating cases to benches… How did benches come into existence… suppose there are 30 judges, how many sit on each bench – two or three… who would be the judge who presides over each bench… should there be dedicated benches that will help in the development of the law… there has to be some mind operating… somebody has to take a decision… It is a great responsibility,” he said.
These are not matters, he said, that can be decided by a multiplicity of persons: “Therefore, it is essential that these should be decided by only one person and, hence, necessarily the CJI.”