Having introduced a subject-wise roster system in the Supreme Court in February this year, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra has now notified changes in it, owing to the appointment of three new judges— Justices Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran and KM Joseph. The new roster came into effect from 7 August.
While keeping the subjects allotted to other judges the same, the new roster allots the following subjects to Justice R. Banumathi: labour matters, Rent Act matters, service matters, compensation matters, criminal matters, family law matters, ordinary civil matters, simple money and mortgage matters, eviction under the Public Premises (Eviction) Act, and land laws and agricultural tenancies.
The master of the roster controversy
The four senior-most Judges of the Supreme Court— Justice Chelameswar, Justice Gogoi, Justice Lokur and Justice Joseph— had held a press conference in January this year, asserting that the administration of the Apex Court is “not in order” and that many “things less than desirable” have been happening in the last few months. It was further revealed that the four Judges had written a letter to the CJI two months ago, airing their grievances.
The primary concern raised in the letter pertained to assignment of matters. While acknowledging that the CJI is the master of the roster, the letter said that this is “not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual of the Chief Justice over his colleagues”. It then stated that while there are well-settled conventions guiding the Chief Justice in the task, off late such conventions have not been strictly adhered to.
“There have been instances where case having far-reaching consequences for the Nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justice of this Court selectively to the benches “of their preference” without any rationale basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against at all costs.
We are not mentioning details only to avoid embarrassing the institution but note that such departure have already damaged the image of this institution to some extent,” the letter had said.
Their grievances were, soon after, supported by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR), which acknowledged that while the four Judges didn’t say it, the assignment of such cases to certain junior Judges was, in fact, done “for achieving a particular result, which in most cases can be seen to be in tune with the wishes of the government“. Such attitude, it said, is especially dangerous when the Government is “trampling on peoples’ fundamental rights and constitutional values“.
It, in fact, claimed that there are numerous such instances of “abuse of the power of the master of roster” and went on to list down such instances. The list began with the decision on the dismissal of its Petition demanding an independent probe into allegations of corruption in the higher judiciary in the medical college bribery case. It, inter alia, also mentioned such roster changes made in the Petition challenging appointment of Special Director, CBI and in another Petition seeking an independent probe into the death of special CBI Judge B.H. Loya, who was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case.
More recently, former Law Minister and Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan had filed a petition seeking clarification of administrative authority of the CJI as the master of roster. Mr. Bhushan’s petition had demanded that the power to list matters be shared with the senior most Judges of the Supreme Court, asserting that the Master of Roster power “cannot be unguided and unbridled discretionary power, exercised arbitrarily by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India”.
Enlisting several politically sensitive cases wherein there was a “gross abuse of power” as regards their listing, the petition had prayed for a declaration that listing of matters must strictly adhere to the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and Handbook on Practice and Procedure and Office Procedure.
The Court, however, dismissed the petition last month, taking note of the recent judgment in Asok Pande’s case where the CJI-led bench had declared that the “CJI was an institution in himself”, and ruling that the CJI need not consult the collegium on allocation of cases.