The country’s top court appeared precariously divided on Friday, after four judges, the senior-most after the Chief Justice of India (CJI), took the unprecedented step of holding a press conference to air their differences with the CJI over the way the highest judicial body is administered. While these judges, led by justice Jasti Chelameswar, did not elaborate much on the issues involved, they shared a letter they had recently sent to the CJI with the media, where it is alleged that “cases having far-reaching consequences” were assigned by “the Chief Justices of this Court” to the benches “of their preference” without assigning any reason. Chelameswar, who had in the past expressed his contrarian views on many issues concerning the judiciary in the relevant fora, including on the SC-imposed collegium-system to appoint and promote judges, acknowledged that it was “an extraordinary event in the history of any nation, more particularly this nation”.
He said, justice Ranjan Gogoi, the next in line to take over as the CJI in October this year, justices MB Lokur and Kurian Joseph had met the CJI Dipak Misra earlier in the day on a “particular issue” but their efforts to persuade him to “take steps to protect the institution” had failed. Two more SC judges — SA Bobde and L Nageshwara Rao — went to Chelameswar’s residence, where the hurriedly convened press conference was held, later in the day, raising the possibility that they too owed allegiance to the four judges. On its part, the government, which is at variance with the Supreme Court on how appointments and promotions of the judges are to be made — the idea of a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) floated by it was struck down by the court — chose not to ostensibly step in.
Soon after the press conference, the CJI is believed to have met attorney general KK Venugopal to discuss the way forward. There were rumours of the CJI too planning to meet the media but that did not materialise. If Misra chooses to resign, Chelameswar is next in line to be CJI. In the seven-page letter, the four judges mentioned how an order passed by some SC judges was recalled by the bench headed by CJI Misra in the RP Luthra case. They raised the issue of delay in finalising the memorandum of procedure (MoP), on which detailed discussions were held by the collegium (comprising the top five judges of the Supreme Court) and submitted by the the CJI to the government in March 2017. “…there should be no further delay in finalisation of MoP in larger public interest,” the SC order in the Luthra case had said and was reiterated by the four judges as well in their letter to the CJI.
“A couple of months ago, the four of us gave a signed letter to the CJI,” Chelameswar said, adding, “We wanted a particular thing to be done in a particular manner. It was done but in such a way that it raised questions about the integrity of the institution.” “This morning also we had to him with a specific request, but we couldn’t convince him. So we were left with no choice but request the nation to take care of the institution. The hallmark of democracy is independent judiciary,” he said.
When the judges were asked specifically whether the matter they had taken up with the CJI in the morning was connected to special CBI judge BH Loya, who is said to have died in suspicious circumstances, justice Gogoi nodded his head in affirmation.
On Thursday, two petitions were filed in the Supreme Court, seeking a probe into the death of Loya who had been hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case. Both petitions, mentioned before a bench of Misra and justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud on Thursday, were marked to the bench of justices Arun Mishra and M Shantanagoudar who on Friday sought the Maharashtra government’s views on the plea for an independent probe into the death of Loya. Asked whether the judges sought the impeachment of the chief justice, they said, “It is not for us to say… Let the nation decide.”
“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rational basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against at all costs,” the four judges’ letter to CJI said.