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Dismissing a PIL filed by advocate Ashok Pande demanding that the CJI-headed three-judge bench must have the two other most senior judges on it, a bench of CJI Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said it was unimpeachably ruled earlier by a five-judge bench that the CJI was the master of the roster and had the sole discretion of deciding the composition of benches and assigning cases.
At an unprecedented press conference on January 12, four senior judges led by Justice J Chelameswar had specifically complained against the allocation of a petition relating to judicial officer B H Loya’s death to a bench headed by a “junior” judge while questioning the CJI’s alleged arbitrary allocation of important cases to benches headed by “select junior” judges.
Writing the unanimous judgment that appeared to be a point-by-point rebuttal to the judges’ grievances aired in the press conference and Justice Chelameswar’s subsequent interaction with the media, Justice Chandrachud said the Chief Justice of India was the first among equals (judges) and had “exclusive prerogative in the allocation of cases and the constitution of benches”. He added, “As a repository of constitutional trust, the CJI is an institution in himself.”
Justice Chandrachud said: “The authority which is conferred upon the CJI, it must be remembered, is vested in a high constitutional functionary. The authority is entrusted to the CJI because such an entrustment of functions is necessary for the efficient transaction of the administrative and judicial work of the SC.”
“The entrustment of functions to the CJI as the head of the institution is with the purpose of securing the position of the SC as an independent safeguard for the preservation of personal liberty. There cannot be a presumption of mistrust. The oath of office demands nothing less.”
Slamming the petitioner’s attempt to classify Supreme Court judges as “senior” and “junior” according to the date of their taking oath in the apex court, Justice Chandrachud said, “Every judge appointed to the SC is invested with equal duty of adjudicating cases which come to the court and are assigned by the CJI. Seniority in terms of appointment has no bearing on which cases a judge should hear.”
“To suggest that any judge would be more capable of deciding particular cases or that certain categories of cases should be assigned only to the senior-most among SC judges has no foundation in principle or precedent. To hold otherwise would be to cast reflection on the competence and ability of other judges to deal with all cases assigned by the CJI, notwithstanding the fact that they have fulfilled the qualification mandated by the Constitution for appointment to the office.”
Another PIL by senior advocate and former law minister Shanti Bhushan, filed through his advocate-son Prashant Bhushan, which sought assigning of cases to the collegium comprising the CJI and the four most senior judges, is pending with the SC. The three-judge bench said, “The Supreme Court has been authorised under Article 145 to frame Rules of Procedure…the petitioner is not entitled to seek a direction that benches of this court should be constituted in a particular manner.”
Touching on the functioning of high courts headed by chief justices, the SC said, “In deciding upon the allocation of work and the constitution of benches, the chief justices of HCs have to determine the number of benches which need to be assigned a particular subject matter keeping in view the inflow of work and arrears. The CJs are guided by the need to ensure orderly functioning of the court and the expeditious disposal of cases.”