Discontent simmering for some time came out in the open on Friday when four of the most senior judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference and assailed the functioning of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Dipak Misra.
The main allegations related to the opaque workings of the collegium, which selects judges, and flouting of conventions regarding the assigning of cases.
Justice J Chelameswar, second in the Supreme Court
hierarchy, flanked by three other judges — Kurian Joseph, Ranjan Gogoi, and Madan Lokur — released a letter sent by them to Chief Justice Misra two months ago. The seven-page letter said rules regarding the composition of Benches and their strength had of late not been strictly adhered to.
“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned selectively to Benches without any rational basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against at all costs,” the judges added.
The letter did not disclose specific cases “only to avoid embarrassing the institution but such departures have already damaged the image of the institution to some extent”.
Before releasing the letter, Justice Chelameswar, in whose sunny lawns the media thronged, said, “This is an extraordinary event in judicial history; it is not a pleasure but we are compelled as senior judges to inform the nation so that remedial measures can be taken.”
He added that “democracy will not survive otherwise, the hallmark of which is the independence of judiciary”.
Justice J Chelameswar said he, along with the other three judges, met the CJI over the allocation of sensitive cases, including the death of a lower court judge, B H Loya. The judge had died mysteriously while he was hearing the matter of the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.
Describing how efforts to set things right in a meeting with the Chief Justice on Friday morning bore no fruit, he said, “All efforts, even in the morning today, failed, leaving us with no choice but to communicate to the nation.” He added that the judges’ collegium was functioning in such a way that it raised a lot of questions and many more undesirable things were happening.
The four judges had left the Supreme Court
in the morning to assemble at noon at Justice Chelameswar’s residence. Third in hierarchy and slated to become Chief Justice later this year, Justice Ranjan Gogoi
said, “We want to discharge a debt to the nation.”
Justice Madan B Lokur said they had to “break ranks” in their effort to bring into the open undesirable happenings in the judiciary. To a question whether they had the support of other judges in the Supreme Court, Justice Lokur said, “We are speaking for the four of us, not for anyone else.”
Justice Kurian Joseph did not elaborate but agreed with what his brother-judges were disclosing.
Answering a question on remedies, the judges said, “Let the nation decide.” On impeachment, the judges reiterated that it was not for them to suggest it.
Attorney General K K Venugopal, who had a meeting with Justice Misra after the joint news conference of the judges, said it “could have been avoided” and that all judges would now have to act in “statesmanship” to ensure total harmony.
The decision of the four SC senior judges to make their grievances public, however, didn’t go down with the legal luminaries.
“As a retired judge of the Supreme Court, I feel devastated. For some reason or the other, their cause is justified, (but) relief they are seeking is wrong...going to the media? No. Judiciary was always considered as a family. Family disputes are never taken to the streets,” Justice N Santosh Hedge said.
Former high court Justice R S Sodhi, too, criticised the action of the four judges. “I am so pained at the outcome of the things... It is appalling. How can you administer Supreme Court
by press conference? Are you going to hold a referendum and ask people what is right and wrong?” he said.
The four dissenting judges in the letter alleged that Chief Justice Misra had broken with conventions built over decades. Assigning cases to different judges is a privilege enjoyed by the Chief Justice; it is not recognition of his superior authority. He must follow the convention devised for disciplined and efficient transaction of court business. “He is only the first among equals – nothing more or nothing less,” the judges pointed out.
Recalling the case of Justice C S Karnan (reitred) of the Calcutta High Court, who was jailed for contempt, the letter reiterated that some judges in the Constitution Bench had suggested a review of the selection process. However, a smaller Bench of the Chief Justice made observations contrary to the decision by the Constitution Bench on the collegium. The matter should have been dealt with by a full court or a Constitution Bench. And this was just one instance, the judges wrote.
The division among senior judges over the assigning of cases has come at a time when the court is going to take up hot-button issues like the Ayodhya appeal, validity of Aadhaar, and ‘love jihad’ from Kerala.
On Friday, a two-judge Bench took up a batch of petitions raising the issue of Judge Loya.
(From left) Justices Kurian Joseph, Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, and Madan Lokur address the media in New Delhi on Friday. Photo: Reuters