As the mantle of the Master of the Roster passes from Justice NV Ramana to Justice UU Lalit, observers take stock of some pronounced changes in the way the Court functions, and speculate about what it heralds. The CJI Tracker is an attempt to capture the Supreme Court’s performance on various rights issues, by studying the legal proceedings that involve the incumbent CJI, and the surrounding public rhetoric.
In its first edition, it studies the first few weeks of CJI Lalit’s tenure.
The long shadow of Justice Ramana’s tenure will be remembered for what can be called a satisfactory navigation of the Court through the vagaries of the pandemic, as observers are quick to note. However, other spectators gestured at the long-pending matters of constitutional importance that the journalist-turned-advocate-turned-Judge had mysteriously ignored – such as the highly controversial Pegasus surveillance scandal, which Apar Gupta believes will live on as CJI Ramana’s tarred legacy. Journalist Saurav Das believes that the impressive speeches and asides from the former CJI contrasted sharply with the relatively lacking performance on issues of national importance. Even Ramana acknowledges this lapse. In a much-reported excerpt, Ramana appears perturbed about inadequacies in listing. “I’m sorry,” he says.
In a corner of the same room, new light shines on Justice UU Lalit.
With four generations of his family steeped in various shades of the legal profession, Lalit remains one of the few Senior Advocates to have been directly inducted to Judgeship of the Supreme Court. Before his formal swearing-in ceremony, Lalit, J had promised to make the listing process more transparent, including instituting a permanent year-round Constitution Bench in the SCI. In the first week since Justice Lalit took over, a bevy of matters was taken up to be judged or issued directions in, by 5-judge benches.
As cautious optimism (see tweet) overtakes collective agnosticism, some points need to be made.
Here’s a coverage of the CJI’s itinerary since he assumed his office – the first fortnight. It must be noted that the Chief Justice has, at the time of going to press, less than 30 days at the helm of affairs.
- On 27th August, 2022, Justice UU Lalit takes oath as CJI.
- On 29th August, Lalit, J begins his first day as the CJI. The pace of preliminary hearings, as reported by Bar and Bench, was matched by other Justices’ courts as well. Some events have been contemporarily unprecedented, such as reaching hearing number 42 being before noon.
- Further, a bench comprising Justices Lalit and Ravindra Bhat went on to reject a PIL filed by ML Sharma, which sought the court’s directions to quash the Rafale deal between India and France alleging corruption, and supporting his claims with the help of a report by a french anti-corruption body. The bench refused to wade into the matters of the CBI, which has previously investigated the issue in some detail.
- The same bench also found no merits in a petition which effectively amounted to the deletion of Section 39 from the NDPS Act which excused or exempted users with quantities of drugs that were within the permissible limit of consumption. Though arguments were made from the viewpoint of the individual consumers who possibly required medical attention and were regrettably prevented from receiving this attention due to the issues of stigma attached to the criminalization of drug use. The court was astute in noting provisions of the NDPS that explicitly addressed this issue – Section 39 ensured the rehabilitation of drug users with regard to their gender, age, etc.
- Further in circular from the SCI, a change in the listing practices at the top court have been instituted, under which fresh matters verified on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday will be listed on the coming Monday, and those verified on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be listed on Friday in the next week. This circular is poised to set a definite pattern in the listing of matters before the top court.
- On the 30th of august, 2022:
- A bench comprising Justices Lalit, Bhat, and Pardiwala dismissed ten petitions as ‘infructuous’. These petitions concerned a probe of the violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The court observed that the SIT instituted for the purpose was in the terminal stages of conducting trials for the various cases involved.
- The CJI was also instrumental in the quashing of the Karnataka Government order allowing the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at a famed idgah site – which senior advocate Dave said would be a destruction of the status quo that had been preserved for 200 years. However, the CJI was not a part of the main bench that gave the order. The role of the CJI expanded far beyond th initial hearings in the matter by senior advocate Dave, and extended much further to when he promptly created a bench comprising a batch of new judges when the earlier bench had a division of opinion on the issue. This new bench was slated to hear the matter on the very same day. LiveLaw called this the ‘court’s non-nonsense’ approach in dealing with matters, which took many members of the bar by complete surprise.
- The day chugged on with the CJI setting up two constitution benches; the first such bench (comprising Justices Lalit, Maheshwari, Bhat, Trivedi, Pardiwala) will be hearing the matter of the EWS reservation, among others. The second such bench (comprising Justices Banerjee, Gupta, Kant, Wundresh, Dhulia) was constituted for considering the validity of the practice of polygamy and nikah halal allowed by Muslim Personal Law, among others. Despite the creation of these benches, there is still the possibility that matters won’t be given their due – with the requests (and easy grants) of adjournments.
- In a felicitation ceremony organized by the Bar Council of India on 2nd September, Justice Lalit noted that he had disposed off 1293 Miscellaneous Matters, 106 Regular Matters & 440 Transfer Petitions in the first 4 days of his tenure – around 1800 cases wholly considered – and that under his charge the court was emphasizing on disposing off of regular matters at the earliest. Yet as the AG KK Venugopal notes, the fast ace of functioning has not compelled the CJI to compromise on the quality of hearings.
- On the 6th of september, the bench comprising Justices Lalit, Maheshwari, Bhat, Trivedi, Pardiwala began hearing the matter constituting a challenge to the 103rd amendment act, which essentially created a reservation in educational institutions in favor of non-SC/ST candidates who belonged to a particular income bracket.
- Further the court also issued notice in response to a plea seeking probe into the bank loan fraud involving the Amtek company and closed contempt proceedings against Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla.
- In a crucial decision, an SCI bench that included the CJI has also issued directions to the Secretaries of all State Governments to take remedial actions against the continued use of Section 66A of the IT Act – a section declared to be unconstitutional in Shreya Singhal vs UOI.
- On the 9th of September, in a much-lauded order, albeit perfunctory and hence lacking in jurisprudence, the court granted bail to long-imprisoned journalist Siddique Kappan, who has been jailed since October, 2020, when he was arretsed on his way to the site of the infamous Hathras rape case. In response to the arguments raised by the counsel for the State of UP that the languishing journalist was part of a huge conspiracy to ‘foment unrest’ using the Hathras incident as a wedge, the court instead compared the same to the active protests after the similarly infamous Delhi gangrape case, in 2011.
- Further, the court issued notice to the UP government in a matter concerning a minor’s donation of his liver to his critically ill father, which seemed to contradict the interpretation of the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Act – which seems to imply that only majors can donate organs.
- Another bench comprising the CJI and Justices Bhat and Narasimha issued notice in the matter of a PIL challenging the practice of internet shutdowns, in the instant case, for the purpose of stopping online cheating in exams. The bench posed questions regarding the proportionality of the measure.
- On the 12th of September, a bench comprising Justices Lalit and Bhat adjourned the hearing regarding a challenge to the CAA, 2019, compartmentalizing a batch of pleas regarding the same. The matter will now be heard in October.
As of going to press, Lalit, CJ has nominated Justice DY Chandrachud as his successor. Justice Chandrachud is poised to have the longest tenure as CJI in recent Supreme Court history.
The Tracker will return with coverage of the next few weeks of CJI Lalit’s tenure. Thank you, as always, for reading. Feedback may be directed at [email protected] with the subject line “CJI Tracker”.
The Tracker is being managed by our Editor, Utkarsh Mani Tripathi with assistance from our Analyst, Kartik Shrivastava. Published by Avani Vijay.