Former Law Minister questions CJI’s authority as ‘master of roster’

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Former Law Minister Shanti Bhushan filed a PIL on Friday 6th April with the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court requesting clarification on the extent of the authority of Chief Justice of India (CJI) regarding the allocation of cases. The PIL filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan on behalf of his father requested the Secretary-General to list the case with three of the senior-most judges of Supreme Court of which CJI Dipak Mishra should not be considered one.

Background

The particular significance of the PIL is related to the January 12 press conference by four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, M B Lokur and Kurian Joseph, all of whom shared their strong objections regarding the procedures of allocating of cases by the office of CJI. The four judges unequivocally declared that mismanagement of roster is increasingly becoming the norm with important and sensitive cases being delegated to junior judges.

They further alleged that cases are not being assigned according to their merits but are assigned to appease certain people and curry political favour. Individual cases are being presided upon by certain judges based on their political leanings as the cases are listed with such biases with the Registry office of the Supreme Court which is seriously undermining the honour and glory of the Court as well as casting aspersions on the CJI Dipak Mishra and Registrar of the Supreme Court.

Facts of the case

During the hearing of a plea on November 11 by Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms a Division Bench of the Court comprising of five judges including CJI Dipak Mishra categorically stated, “the CJI is the master of the roster, though, on the judicial side, he is first among equals. No judge can hear a matter unless assigned by the CJI.” The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms were drawing the Supreme Court’s notice to the Medical College bribery case urging for a CBI investigation into the case in which the Apex Court had imposed a hefty fine of Rs. 25 lakh on the petitioners. The Senior advocate Shanti Bhushan addressing the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court objected to the presence of CJI in this case claiming, “the CJI could not have heard the case as he himself was involved.”

The petitioner pointed out that the roster of the Court records the work that is being assigned to various high court and Supreme Court judges. The ‘master of roster’ is a reflection of the privilege of the office of CJI to constitute benches to hear cases and thus extreme caution should be exercised in case allocation so that high standards of integrity and the fair, just and transparent process is followed.

As per the petition submitted it was alleged that the Court proceedings in maintaining a fair roster are neglected by the CJI and Registrar which “reflects a serious erosion of the independence of the judiciary.” According to the petitioner, this trend is hampering the due process of law and “as a result, justice appears to be skewed and in many cases, justice may even stand denied.”

In his plea Senior advocate, Shanti Bhushan pointed out the fact that “the ‘master of roster’ cannot be unguided and unbridled discretionary power, exercised arbitrarily by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India by hand-picking benches of select Judges or by assigning cases to particular Judges.” The petitioner suggested that the duty of allocating cases should be handled by the office of CJI and Registrar of Supreme Court in consultation with five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court in accordance with the rules and regulations of Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and Handbook on Practice and Procedure and Office Procedure followed by the Court.

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