In scathing words, the judges put out that the privilege of “Master of Roster” is not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual of CJI over his colleagues.
The “Supreme” tussle going on within the apex judicial institution of India has received a new twist with the Supreme Court bench reiterating that the Chief Justice of India is the Master of Roster. It means that the role of appointing judges and constituting benches for hearing the cases rests solely with the CJI. The judgement should finally draw the curtain over the issue.
The entire fiasco around the “Master of Roster” began back in January when the four Supreme Court judges held a press conference for the first time in the history alleging mismanagement in the Apex Court. The four senior-most judges Justice Jasti Chelameshwar (Retd), Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice MB Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph in a serious allegation warned that the “democracy is in a danger”. The judges had also issued a press statement after the Press conference.
The letter mentioned several issues that were raised by these judges before CJI Dipak Mishra. One of the issues was regarding the allocation of cases to the judges. But before diving into the timeline of the controversy surrounding the “Master of Roster”, let us first understand what does it exactly means:
“Master of Roster”:
Functioning as a “Master of Roster” is one of the roles the Chief Justice of India has to perform. The CJI, as the head of the Judiciary of India and the Supreme Court of India, allocates cases and appoints constitutional benches to deal with important cases. It is a part of the CJI’s administrative functions to appoint matters to other judges of the SC while maintaining the roster.
In November last year, a Constitution Bench, led by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, declared that “the Chief Justice is the master of the roster and he alone has the prerogative to constitute the Benches of the Court and allocate cases to the Benches so constituted.”
When did the conflict arise?
The judgement given out by the constitution bench led by CJI Dipak Mishra further mentioned that “No Judge other than CJI can take up the matter on this own unless allocated by the Chief Justice of India, as he is the master of the roster.” This judgement proved to be the ground for the disagreement among the Supreme Court judges regarding the “Master of Roster” function of the CJI.
The November judgement by CJI Dipak Mishra was in response to a direction given out by a two-judge Bench led by Justice Chelameswar while hearing a petition regarding a medical college corruption case.
What Is the MCI scam?
The CBI in September last year arrested a retired Orissa High Court judge in a medical college scam involving the Prasad Institute of Medical Sciences based in Lucknow. The college was barred from admitting more student after the audit found out the college did not have adequate facilities and non-fulfilment of the required criteria.
According to the CBI investigation, the retired Orissa HC judge Justice Quddusi and Bhawana Pandey allegedly assured the Prasad Education Trust that they would ensure the matter is settled in the Supreme Court. The CBI also said that the accused have also influenced some of the Supreme Court judges through a middleman.
Justice Chelameshwar vs. CJI Dipak Mishra:
While the Prasad Education Trust filed a petition in Allahabad High Court and a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the ban, another petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms which sought an independent probe by a SIT headed by a retired CJI. The petitioner argued that as the case involves charges of corruption in the highest judicial bodies; such a probe is need of the hour. The petition was put before the bench headed by Justice Chelameshwar.
The bench passed an order passed an order to set up a constitution bench of five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court for hearing the petition seeking a SIT probe. The bench also issued notices to the Centre and MCI. In turn, the petitioner’s counsel also contended that CJI Mishra should not be a part of the five-judge bench as he has in the past dispensed with the case.
While Justice Chelameshwar was about to pass the order, he received another draft order by CJI Dipak Mishra who listed the same matter in another court. However, Justice Chelameshwar cited Article 145(3) and observed that a constitution bench without the CJI passing a specific order can hear a matter relating to the SIT probe. The matter took an ugly turn when the CJI set up a seven-judge bench to overview the order passed by Justice Chelameswar bench in the matter of SIT probe. While two judges escaped themselves, the five-judge bench overruled the order passed by Justice Chelameswar.
The letter to the CJI:
While the seeds of the dissent by Justice Chelameshwar were sown during the November 10 judgement, the matter resurfaced in the concerns listed by the four Supreme Court judges in a letter to the CJI. In scathing words, the judges put out that the privilege of “Master of Roster” to the CJI is devised for a disciplined and efficient transaction of business of the Court, but is not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual, of the Chief Justice over his colleagues. “It is too well-settled in jurisprudence that the Chief Justice is only the first among equals — nothing more or nothing less,” read the letter.
The letter further mentioned, “There have been instances where cases 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 preferences” without any rational basis for such assignment.” This opened up a door for a full-fledged debate around the CJI’s role as the “Master of Roster”.
The unfolding of the future events:
In the months following the historic Press Conference by the Supreme Court judges, the opposition raised the issue in parliament and even planned to move an impeachment motion. While the motion was not admitted in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha chairman Vice President Venkaiah Naidu rejected it.
However, the former Law Minister of India Shanti Bhushan challenged the CJI’s powers as the “Master of Roster” in a petition filed by him in the Supreme Court in April this year. The petition suggested a panel to be formed of senior judges to decide on the rostering of judges and assigning of cases. However, a bench led by Justice Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan ruled that it is indeed the prerogative of the CJI to allocate the cases to different benches and judges. The bench also observed that the time-tested rich conventions and practices of the Supreme Court should not be tinkered with.
With this judgement, the matter should finally draw the curtain over the issue of responsibility of allocation of cases to Supreme Court judges.