The press conference held by the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court earlier this year, almost accusing the Chief Justice of India (CJI) of putting democracy in peril, is well known. They were particularly critical of the roster system and castigated the CJI for not being fair in allocating cases to his colleagues. A leading political party lost no time in initiating impeachment proceedings against the CJI, which added fuel to the fire.
Against this background, doubts were raised over whether the government, which was seen by some to be siding with the CJI, would follow the line of succession in choosing his successor. The government’s spokesperson put the ball in the chief justice’s court. We were told that, as per convention, it is the CJI who recommends the name of his successor and the government goes by his recommendation. All eyes were thus set on the CJI. He has reportedly recommended the name of Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the senior-most judge after him, and by so doing has put to rest all speculation and misgivings. It is hoped that the government will act on his recommendation and appoint Justice Gogoi as the next C JI.
Undoubtedly, the CJI while recommending Justice Gogoi’s name has set aside his personal sense of hurt and placed institutional interest above everything else. The CJI has done what was expected of him as the head of a responsible arm of the state. But given the background that preceded his decision, he deserves to be applauded. Whatever may have been the failings of the CJI, he did not deserve the treatment that was meted out to him, especially from his own.
Now that Justice Gogoi — who was an active participant in the press conference — will in all probability step into the shoes of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, there is every reason to believe that he will address the issue of the roster, which troubled him and his colleagues so much. Justice Gogoi is known to be fiercely independent, upright and a no-nonsense man. We all hope that he will make the system more transparent with little or minimal scope for manipulation in the matter of allocation of cases to his colleague judges, and also keep in view their seniority. In the task ahead, he will need both empathy and imagination.
Another issue that will require the urgent attention of the chief justice-designate is the mounting arrears of cases at all levels of the judicial hierarchy. Without going into the details, it is enough to point out that there are more than 3.3 crore cases pending in courts across the country, many of them for over 10 years. Given the pile of cases awaiting decisions, setting up more courts and appointing of more judges at all levels with supporting staff is the crying need of the hour.
The judiciary represents the rule of law, which is the soul of any democracy and provides a shield to an ordinary citizen against the tyranny of the state and society. Hence, the need for a healthy, robust, vibrant and responsive judicial system. Unfortunately, the budget that is allocated to this important wing of the state is woefully inadequate to meet the needs and challenges facing the judiciary. In the financial year 2017-2018, the Union budget allocated a meagre Rs 1,744 crore to the judiciary, about 0.4 per cent of the total budget.
Not very long ago, the then Chief Justice of India, T S Thakur, lamented the sorry state of affairs of the judiciary. Addressing a gathering in Vigyan Bhawan on April 24, 2016, Justice Thakur — who otherwise has a serene disposition — felt so helpless that he was driven to tears while imploring the government to address the issue.
It will now be Justice Gogoi’s responsibility. Meanwhile, within the existing set of circumstances, let all stakeholders look for out-of-the-box solutions.