Supreme Court reporting would teach you the art of walking into crowded court corridors, with your elbows slightly up so that you can claim your human space to walk, especially on Mondays and Fridays. Those were the pre-Covid days when the cramped corridors of the apex court would be buzzing with lawyers and journalists. Judges heard matters, quickly granting or denying relief, and throwing files at a faster pace.
The life of a court reporter is about reconstructing the fireworks that she sees in the courtroom; there is never a live telecast, only anecdotes of verbal barbs. Not in the wildest imagination, one can think of four sitting judges of the Supreme Court holding a press conference. But that did happen.
On January 12, 2018, four judges of the top court— Justice Jasti Chelameswar, Justice Madan B Lokur, Justice Kurian Joseph, and Justice Ranjan Gogoi— held a press conference at the official residence of Justice Chelameswar. Like any busy Friday, while hovering from one court to another, I got a call from a source saying there would be a press conference by judges of the Supreme Court. Half smirking and half rattled, as I rang other people, within the next five minutes it was clear that something was simmering. In a few minutes, we were on the way to the residence of Justice Chelameswar, and the rest is history.
The four judges spoke to the press — they called upon their duty to protect the Constitution and its values, they spoke of generations to come and their responsibility towards posterity, they spoke of saving democracy. They asserted that they had a responsibility towards the institution, and no one should accuse them of “selling their souls". Despite the passage of about five years, there is very little which has been understood of that press conference. While the public discourse around the judiciary is centred on judicial pronouncements or judicial appointments, very little attention is paid to the “listing" of cases or the administration of the Supreme Court. The listing of cases to a particular bench was the trigger to that mutiny in the apex court.
The Chief Justice is the “first amongst the equals" and the “master of the roster" who allots cases to different benches, exercising great power in the literal administration of justice. The use or rather the “misuse" of this power and the role of certain judges was directly questioned in that press conference and the eventual letter that was put out by the judges. The then Chief Justice of India, Justice Dipak Misra, was accused of allotting cases to a bench “of their preference".
The trigger seemed to be a PIL seeking an investigation into the death of Judge Loya to a bench led by Justice Arun Misra. Judge Loya was hearing the Sohrabuddin encounter case and his death had given rise to many suspicions. While this PIL may have been the trigger, many crucial cases were allotted to the bench of Justice Arun Misra which irked the seniormost judges of the court. They opened a front like never before.
With the privilege of hindsight, let’s dissect this more. The four judges said that the allocation of certain important cases to a “preferred bench" threatened the sanctity of the Supreme Court and democracy itself, which means the issue directly concerned the propriety of the allotment of cases. The judges on that cold January morning lay bare an open secret of judicial corridors. Along with the merits of a case, which judge hears the case is equally important.
No institution including the judiciary is completely free of corruption. But no institution is “feared" as much as the judiciary when it comes to open scrutiny and criticism, at least in the public perception. Judicial corruption has not been discussed openly and freely in our country, perhaps due to the fear of being hauled for contempt. How our judges are appointed, how our courts are administered, and how cases are listed and heard— these are issues that must be discussed openly and freely. But unfortunately, that press conference failed to change the culture of silence. There are various changes that continue to be made by successive CJIs in the Supreme Court, but we are still far away from complete transparency when it comes to the listing of cases.
All four judges have retired from the top court. The press conference is remembered as an aberration, a mere incident. It had given much hope for dramatic reforms that we never saw. The day shall be remembered as one that promised a revolution of change but fizzled out in matching the grandeur of its own dissent.
There is one more issue that the letter of the four judges spoke of: the issue of judicial appointments. That chapter is for another day.
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