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Supreme Court 2020 : Events and Controversies

Manu Sebastian
31 Dec 2020 2:22 PM GMT
Supreme Court 2020 : Events and Controversies

Even in the COVID-19 affected year of 2020, which threw physical functioning out of gear, the Supreme Court did not cease to be eventful.From an ex-CJI becoming a Rajya Sabha MP within months after retirement to a viral photo of the present CJI on a luxury bike opening the floodgates of contempt cases to a Chief Minister making public allegations against a possible next CJI, the top...

Even in the COVID-19 affected year of 2020, which threw physical functioning out of gear, the Supreme Court did not cease to be eventful.

From an ex-CJI becoming a Rajya Sabha MP within months after retirement to a viral photo of the present CJI on a luxury bike opening the floodgates of contempt cases to a Chief Minister making public allegations against a possible next CJI, the top court witnessed several unprecedented events in 2020.

Here is a round up of the major events and controversies which rocked the Supreme Court in the pandemic year.

Ranjan Gogoi's Rajya Sabha nomination

The Central Government in March nominated Ranjan Gogoi, who had retired as the Chief Justice of India five months ago, as a member of the Rajya Sabha. The move was startling as there were several circumstances which make one strongly feel that the Rajya Sabha nomination was a quid pro quo for judicial actions(and inactions) favoring the ruling establishment. Many in the legal fraternity shared the view that Gogoi's acceptance of the nomination did not augur well for public confidence in judicial independence.

There were also questions at Gogoi's suitability for being nominated to the eminent house as he was under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations which were not convincingly disproved through a due process.

Responding to the criticisms, Gogoi gave a channel interview, where he uncharitably slammed his critics such as former judges Justices M B Lokur, Kurian Joseph and AP Shah.

Gogoi also astonishingly said during the interview that he was not remembering the electoral bonds case while responding to the criticism that the Supreme Court was deliberately delaying adjudication on the matter to protect the interests of the government.

Migrant workers crisis

The Supreme Court came under a lot of public flak for its approach towards the migrant workers crisis caused by the national lockdown. Several senior lawyers and former judges criticized the top court for unilaterally accepting the claims of Central Government on the migrants problems without verification.

Migrant workers took the worst hit due to the lockdown. The abrupt declaration of lockdown with a notice of four hours triggered a massive exodus of migrant workers from cities to their native places. In the absence of regular means of transport, they attempted to traverse hundreds of kilometers by foot.

However, the Supreme Court made a startling finding that the massive exodus of migrants was caused by "fake news".

"The migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lock down would continue for more than three months. Such panic driven migration has caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news. In fact, some have lost their lives in the process.", observed the bench in an order passed on March 31.

This conclusive and sweeping finding was solely based on the assertion made by the Centre in its affidavit that fake news was to be blamed for the exodus. The bench did not think it necessary to examine if there are other factors such as unemployment, poverty etc, which force the migrants to undertake the desperate measure of walking back to their native homes.
An oral remark made by the CJI, while hearing a PIL seeking to direct the Centre to transfer wages to the accounts of migrants in shelter homes, came under severe public criticism. The remark was - "if they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?(sic)".
Former SC judge Justice M B Lokur searingly said that the SC deserves an 'F' grade for its handling of migrants cases.

The Solicitor General, who attacked the PILs as 'self-employment generating petitions', claimed before the Court that no migrants were walking on the roads.
Few days after the top court refused to entertain a plea seeking to permit migrants to travel by trains without conditions or charges, the horrific Aurangabad tragedy occurred. A goods train had ran over 16 migrant workers, who fell asleep on the tracks after walking along it for hours!. Meanwhile, many High Courts were taking pro-active actions with respect to the problems suffered by migrants.
In the last week of May, two months after the declaration of lockdown, the Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance of the migrants problems.The Court said that there were "inadequacies and certain lapses" in the measures taken by the governments for migrants welfare.
Deviating from its initial approach of denial about migrants walking, the court observed :  "The newspaper reports and the media reports have been continuously showing the unfortunate and miserable conditions of the migrant labourers walking on-foot and cycles from long distances"

Migrant Workers Cases : SC Failed To Rise To The Occasion

Solicitor General's 'vulture' remark
The Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, kicked up a row by using the remark 'vultures' in relation to media and activists, during the hearing of the suo moto case on migrants crisis.
Vehemently opposing the intervention of the court, the Solicitor General said that "prophets of doom" and "arm chair intellectuals" were spreading misinformation about migrants problems. According to him, some "isolated, limited" instances were being blown out of proportion. He claimed that "local instigation" led to the migrants' walk in many cases.
SG also tried to put the petitioners' lawyers on the dock by asking what have they done to help migrants.

Without sparing even the High Courts, some of which passed certain significant orders to mitigate migrants' sufferings, the Solicitor General said that "HCs are running parallel governments".

During the hearing, he referred to the instance of photographer Kevin Carter, who took the award winning photograph "Vulture and the Child". SG said that Kevin Carter was feeling remorseful for not having saved the child from the vulture and later committed suicide.
"There were two vultures in the picture. One with the camera", the SG attributed these words as having said by a distraught Carter.
These remarks were slammed by several media persons and photo journalists, who stated that the SG was misrepresenting facts of the Carter incident. They said that Carter never uttered such words and that he had shooed away the vulture after capturing the tragic photograph of the famine, and that his suicide was due to personal reasons.
The SG's scathing attack on journalists and activists drew a lot of ire. Senior Advocate Navroz Seervai commented that the incident "was an extreme manifestation of a fatal disease that afflicts the legal profession"

Professional Ethics: A Gentle Reminder To The Solicitor General Of India

CJI's Harley Davidson picture and the consequent contempt case
In June, a picture of CJI SA Bobde sitting on a Harley Davidson bike became viral in social media. Advocate Prashant Bhushan made a critical tweet implying that CJI was enjoying a ride on an expensive bike belonging to a BJP politician after keeping the court under lockdown. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court seeking to initiate criminal contempt against Bhushan for this tweet.
A bench led by Justice Arun Mishra issued contempt notice to Bhushan taking cognizance of this tweet and also another tweet in which he said that Supreme Court had played a role in the destruction of democracy, particularly during the term of last four CJIs. The  bench observed that his tweets "brought disrepute to justice administration and undermined the dignity of CJI's office".

Dushyant Dave's explosive arguments in Bhushan contempt case
Prashant Bhushan put up a spirited defence in his contempt case by filing a detailed 464-page affidavit explaining the reasons for his views. Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave's no-holds-barred arguments for Bhushan before a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra will be remembered as a historic moment of the bar raising up to call out the failings in the administration of justice.
"Why only some judges get politically sensitive cases?", Dave asked during the hearing. He highlighted the inaction of the top court in many cases of national importance and the opaqueness in the collegium and roster systems.

'Why Only Certain Judges Get Politically Sensitive Matters?' : Dave Raises Points Of Criticism Against SC In Prashant Bhushan Contempt Case

Bhushan's refusal to apologize
During the hearings, the bench led by Justice Arun Mishra repeatedly urged Bhushan to apologize, giving the impression that the court was somehow seeking an easy closure of the contempt case.
"Tell us what is wrong in using the word 'apology'? What is wrong in seeking apology? Apology is a magical word, which can heal many things.If you have hurt anybody, you must apply balm. One should not feel belittled by that", Justice Arun Mishra observed during the hearing. 
On August 20, a dramatic moment occurred in the case, when Bhushan shot to heroic fame by making powerful statements before the court, refusing to offer apology. He asserted that his tweets were his bona fide opinions which he was entitled to express.
"I believe that open criticism of any institution is necessary in a democracy, to safeguard the constitutional order", he said.
Paraphrasing a quote of Mahatma Gandhi, he said "I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal to magnanimity. I am here to cheerfully submit to any penalty". Social media users were exhilarated at the stand taken by him. Many members of the general public hailed him as a hero. 
The bench ultimately found him guilty of contempt and sentenced him to pay a fine of Rupees one. 
Justice Arun Mishra's retirement
Justice Arun Mishra's tenure was marked with unmatched controversies due to his unabashed pro-establishment stance, open praise for the Prime Minister(who was called a 'versatile genius'), close nexus with members of ruling party, mercurial remarks and several questionable verdicts.  After he retired on September 5, he generated a lot of bad press. A scathing article written by a former High Court judge effectively said that Justice Mishra's retirement was good riddance.
Justice Mishra's last order was for the eviction of nearly 48000 slum dwellings around Delhi tracks within 3 months. The summary order was passed in a case which was not directly concerned with slum dwellers and the same was made without hearing the affected parties and without exploring means of rehabilitation.

Justice Arun Mishra's Controversial Tenure Leaves Questions On Public Confidence In Judiciary

Personal liberty- Arnab Goswami case
Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami filed at least nine petitions in the Supreme Court this year challenging various actions taken by the Maharashtra government and Mumbai police against him and his channel. Many members of the legal fraternity complained that his cases were getting out of turn listing.
On November 9, a bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee held a special sitting during the Diwali vacation to hear the petition filed by Goswami seeking interim bail in the Anvay Naik suicide case. Several lawyers wondered how his petition got a special listing within one day of filing even without curing all filing defects. SCBA President Dushyant Dave wrote to the SC registry complaining about the "selective listing" of Goswami's case for urgent hearing.
During the day long hearing, Justice Chandrachud waxed eloquent about the duty of the courts to protect the personal liberty of a citizen from state excesses. Many social media users pointed out that the promptitude shown by the court in this case was in stark contrast with its evasive approach in Kashmir habeas cases and bail pleas of political prisoners.

Complaints against registry
A lawyer named Advocate Reepak Kansal filed a writ petition with complaints against the SC Registry. He alleged that the Registry was following a 'pick and choose' method and was showing favoritism to certain lawyers/litigants by giving urgent listing to their petitions. Kansal stated that the Section officers and/or Registry of Supreme Court routinely gave preferences to some law firms and influential advocates for reasons "best known to them.
A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra admonished the petitioner for raising 'unnecessary' allegations against the Registry and dismissed the petition. The Court imposed a cost of Rs 100 on the petitioner.
At the same time, there are certain instances where the court has passed judicial orders seeking explanation from the Registry for delay in listing cases(see here and here).
Several lawyers expressed solidarity with Reepak Kansal by launching a drive to collect the cost of Rupees 100 imposed on him through denominations of 50 paise.
Andhra CM's explosive complaint against Justice Ramana
In an unprecedented move, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, shot off a complaint to the Chief Justice of India alleging  that Justice NV Ramana - who is in line to be the next CJI - is influencing the High Court judges to give decisions against his government.
The contents of the letter were publicized in a press conference held by CM's secretary Ajeya Kellam. Soon after that, a plea seeking contempt action against the CM was made before the Attorney General for making public allegations. Though AG Venugopal opined that the publication of the letter was 'contemptuous' in nature, he refrained from granting sanction as the CJI was already seized of the issue.

Though nearly five months have passed after the extraordinary complaint made by the Andhra CM, there is no public knowledge about any action taken by the CJI on it. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice of AP High Court, Justice J K Maheshwari, was transferred as the CJ of a much smaller High Court of Sikkim.

Opening floodgates of contempt cases

The Prashant Bhushan contempt case opened the floodgate of contempt cases. Soon after that, a contempt plea was presented before the AG for action against actor Swara Bhaskar for her critical comments about Ayodhya verdict. The AG declined consent saying that the comments did not amount to an attack on the Supreme Court. Dissatisfied with that, the petitioner approached the Solicitor General, who also adopted the stand of the AG.

The year witnessed a peculiar trend of law students filing petitions seeking contempt action for tweets and satirical comments about judiciary. Such petitions resulted in the contempt notices against comedian Kunal Kamra and comic illustrator Rachita Taneja(of sanitary panels).

With respect to Kamra, the AG noted that apart from many comments against judges, Kamra posted a picture of the Supreme Court dressed in saffron colour with the flag of the ruling party, the BJP.

Taking strong exception to this tweet, the AG commented:

"This is a gross insinuation against the entirety of the Supreme Court of India that the Supreme Court of India is not an independent and impartial institution and so too its judges, but on the other hand is a court of the ruling party, the BJP, existing only for the BJP's benefit"

The AG also commented that that comic illustrations in 'Sanitary Panels' twitter handle using stick figures tend to 'shake public confidence in the judiciary'.

Responding to the AG's sanction, Kamra, possibly taking a leaf out of Prashant Bhushan's stand, said that he has no intention to retract or regret his tweets.

He added that the "silence of the SupremeCourt on matters of other's personal liberty cannot go uncriticized".

In the statement published through Twitter, Kamra suggested that the time required for the contempt hearing against him may be spent on other important pending matters such as "demonetization petition, a petition challenging the revocation of J&K's special status, the matter of the legality of electoral bonds or countless other matters that are deserving of more time and attention".

It needs to be seen if the Supreme Court will repeat the fiasco in the Prashant Bhushan contempt case by putting a comedian and comic illustrator on trial for contempt.

Central Vista Case - SC expresses unhappiness

On December 7, a bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar expressed unhappiness at the Central Government removing structures and cutting down trees for the new Parliament building when the court has reserved judgment on the petitions challenging the Central Vista project.

"We thought we are dealing with a prudent litigant and deference will be shown. Just because there is no stay it does not mean that you can go head with everything", a visibly upset Justice A M Khanwilkar told the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

"We have shown deference to you and expected that you will act in a prudent manner. The same deference should be shown to the Court and there should be no demolition or construction", the bench told the SG.

The Solicitor General apologized and undertook that the foundation ceremony will be done without altering the site. On that condition, the SC allowed the foundation ceremony to proceed.

Year of no new appointments

It is also to be noted that no new appointment of judges to the Supreme Court happened this year. Three judges retired from service this year- Justices Deepak Chopra, R Banumathi and Arun Mishra.

Also Read : Good & Bad : 65 Important Supreme Court Judgments Of 2020

Supreme Court 2019 : Events & Controversies

Press Conference, Impeachment Motion & More : Major SC Events Of 2018








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