What is it?
The ‘master of roster’ controversy is focussed on the absolute administrative power of the Chief Justice of India to allot cases to his colleagues in the Supreme Court. Over the past few months, the Supreme Court, through two back-to-back judgments, have formalised the “convention” that the Chief Justice of India is sui generis(unique) in his discretion to decide which case in the Supreme Court goes to which judge. Both judgments, delivered by a Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, agree that he is only a first among the equals as a judge, but none, even his fellow judges, can question his powers as the court’s top administrator. To justify its reasoning that the Chief Justice of India is administratively supreme, the two verdicts — in November 2017 and April this year — refer to Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules of 2013, which indicates that the Chief Justice of India would nominate the judges who would constitute a Bench to hear a cause, appeal or case.

The Supreme Court further applies a Rajasthan High Court judgment which holds that the Chief Justice is the master of the roster. The Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench, in November 2017, held that the High Court’s judgment “must apply proprio vigore as regards the power of the Chief Justice of India.”

How did it come about?
The issue gained public interest when four senior-most Supreme Court judges — Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph — blamed the recent Chief Justices of India of selectively allotting cases to “preferred Benches” at a press conference on January 12. A month later, Chief Justice Dipak Misra published a new subject-wise roster for allocation of cases in the Supreme Court. However, the move did not mend matters among the top five judges, especially because the Chief Justice of India, in the new roster, had allocated public interest litigation matters to himself.

The April verdict responded to the criticism by again declaring the Chief Justice of India’s “exclusive duty and authority” as master of roster. This judgment was a follow-up of the November 2017 verdict which first declared that the CJI’s dominance over the roster was necessary to protect the Supreme Court from “anarchy.”

Why does it matter?
The doubts voiced about the master of roster issue were summed up by senior advocate Dushyant Dave in two quotes. First, Thomas Fuller’s “Be ye ever so high, the law is above you” and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s “After all, the Chief Justice is a man with all the failings…” In a recent lecture, the former Delhi High Court Chief Justice, A.P. Shah, said such “immense powers” should not rest in one person. There is an urgent need to “democratise” the position of the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justices of the High Courts while deciding the roster.

In fact, the November 2017 judgment was triggered by an order of Justice Chelameswar to have a Bench of the senior-most judges hear the Lucknow medical college ‘scam.’ The issue related to allegations of a conspiracy to bribe Supreme Court judges. The private medical college’s case was heard by a Bench led by the Chief Justice.

What next?
The controversy refuses to die down. Within a couple of days after the April judgment, the former Union Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan, moved the Supreme Court for a judicial declaration that the authority of the Chief Justice of India as master of roster should not be reduced to an arbitrary power. Mr. Bhushan argued that allocation of “sensitive” cases should be done by the CJI in consultation with his collegium.

A Bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan have sought the assistance of Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal. All eyes are on the next hearing scheduled for April 27.

(Adapted from the Hindu)