Apex court bench rules the CJI has the role of first among equals and the authority to allocate cases
New Delhi: The apex Supreme Court (SC) on Friday ruled that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is “the master of the roster” and first among equals, having authority to assign cases to different benches of the court.
“The Chief Justice (CJI) has the role of first among equals and is empowered to exercise leadership in administration of the court which includes assignment of cases. There is no dispute that Chief Justice is the master of roster,” a bench, comprising Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan, said.
The top court observed that though the Constitution was silent on this, but conventions and judgements over the time established that CJI was first among equals.
“Conventions and judgements accepted by all stake holders over a period of time convey that the Chief Justice is first among judges and senior most having full authority and prerogative to allocate cases,” the bench said.
Justice Bhushan said the rich conventions and practices of SC were time-tested and should not be tinkered with.
In January, four top ranking judges after Chief Justice — Justices J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur and Kurian Joseph — had called a press conference in which they took on CJI Dipak Misra over the way “sensitive cases were being assigned.”
“The administration of the Supreme Court is not in order. Time and again as senior members of the court, we thought we hold responsibility to the nation. Democracy is at stake. We don’t want people to say 20 years later that we did not take care of the institution. We tried to persuade the CJI to take steps about administration of sensitive cases but failed. Unless the institution of Supreme Court is preserved, democracy won’t survive in this country,” Justice Chelameswar had said.
But on Friday, the apex court ruled that CJI being the senior-most judge of SC was the “spokesperson and leader of judiciary.”
The verdict came on a plea of former union law minister Shanti Bhushan challenging the existing practice of allocation of cases by CJI.
“The master of the roster cannot be an unguided and unbridled discretionary power, exercised arbitrarily by the Chief Justice by hand-picking the benches of select judges or by assigning cases to particular judges,” Bhushan had said in his petition.
Responding to that, Attorney General KK Venugopal said a panel of judges deciding assignment of cases would result in chaos.
“It is essential that there should be one person doing this and if it has to be one person, then it has to be CJI,” Venugopal told the court.
Justice Sikri rejected Bhushan’s contention that the term “Chief Justice of India”, as defined in the SC rules, should be read as the collegium comprising five senior-most judges.
“The erosion of judiciary in the minds of people is the greatest threat to judicial system. It would be difficult to accept the petitioner’s argument that the term ‘Chief Justice of India’ should be read as the collegium comprising five senior-most judges responsible for allocating cases,” Justice Sikri said.