The weekday judge and weekend orator: Analysis of CJI NV Ramana's tenure

Unlike his predecessors, CJI Ramana seemed to work seven days a week - five days occupying the bench, and two days of the weekend delivering speeches and lectures on various issues.
CJI NV Ramana
CJI NV Ramana

On his last day at the Supreme Court, Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, decided to live-stream the proceedings of his courtroom, a demand that has been long pending in the interests of transparency.

It is a move that is perhaps testament to his tenure as CJI - eager to remain ever-present in the public eye during, and especially, after court hours.

When he assumed office as CJI last year, the Supreme Court was facing what many perceived as a crisis of leadership, with his predecessors not giving matters of socio-economic importance the urgency and attention it required, and failing to act upon challenges to high-handed executive action.

It was hoped that given his activist background, things would take a turn for the better. Critics will argue that they have not.

After being elevated to the Supreme Court in February 2014, Justice Ramana took charge as CJI on April 24, 2021.

His 490-day tenure at helm has been the second longest among the last ten CJIs, and is substantially longer than that of his successor, Justice UU Lalit.

Over the course of his tenure as a judge of the Supreme Court and later CJI, he authored 177 judgments, mostly in criminal matters, and was part of the bench for 594 judgments.

CJI Ramana Judgments
CJI Ramana JudgmentsManupatra

Perhaps due to his own roots as a journalist (with Eenadu newspaper) before he plunged into law, CJI Ramana had a rather refreshing willingness to engage with the public and the press, regardless of his frequent criticism of the fourth estate.

Unlike his predecessors, CJI Ramana seemed to work seven days a week - five days occupying the bench, and the two days of the weekend spent delivering speeches and lectures on topics ranging from what ails the education system to citizens falling prey to fraudulent healthcare services.

Many have noticed and critiqued the obvious disparity between the comparatively docile CJI of the weekdays and the activist CJI of the weekends and court holidays who did not shy away from saying what was on his mind.

In fact, CJI Ramana's contributions and achievements over his entire tenure can easily be divided on these lines.

So how did he address the issues that plague the justice system in our country? What is the legacy that he leaves behind?

Even as the Bar bids him a fond farewell, we analyse the 16-month tenure of CJI NV Ramana.

Saturday, June 26, 2021: Speaking at a book launch ceremony, CJI Ramana quoted Lord Denning, saying, "the best judge is one who is less known and seen in the media"

Pendency

When CJI Ramana assumed charge in 2021, around 67,000 cases were pending disposal before the top court. Currently, there are at least 71,400 pending cases.

However, it is only fair to view this increase in pendency in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, with courts facing continuing resistance to virtual hearings at a time when there was a dearth of other options.

Recent reports suggest that the Supreme Court would require an uninterrupted 3.8 years, with no new cases being filed, to clear its pending cases.

Saturday July 17, 2021: Speaking at the India- Singapore Mediation Summit, CJI Ramana said, “It is often stated that there are 45 million pending cases and its said because courts cannot handle it. It is an uncharitable analysis...Issue of judicial delays is a complex problem and just not in India"

Inaction on Constitutional matters

What is more concerning than the number of pending cases is the fact that 492 Constitution Bench matters, involving 53 main cases, also remain pending. These are matters that entail deep analysis of crucial questions of law which are likely to impact citizens and institutions across the country for years and decades to come.

Pending Constitution Bench Matters
Pending Constitution Bench Mattershttps://main.sci.gov.in/statistics

CJI Ramana did inherit a majority of these Constitution Bench matters, but little to no action was seen to be taken by the master of roster during his tenure.

Saturday, October 2, 2021: Speaking at the launch of the ‘Pan India Legal Awareness and Outreach Campaign’, CJI Ramana said, "Guarantee of equal justice will be rendered meaningless if the vulnerable sections cannot enforce their rights"

Abrogation of Article 370

More than 20 petitions are pending before the top court challenging the Central governments’ August 2019 decision to revoke the special status of the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir and bifurcate it into the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.

First heard in August 2019, it was last mentioned on April 25, 2022, when CJI Ramana remarked that he will try to list the case, while also stating that there are some issues with the Constitution Bench composition.

Saturday May 14, 2022: Speaking after laying the foundation stone of a new Court complex in Srinagar, CJI Ramana said, "Denial of justice would ultimately lead to anarchy. Soon the institution of judiciary would be destabilized as people will look for extrajudicial mechanisms. Peace shall only prevail, when people`s dignity and rights are recognised and protected."

Citizenship Amendment Act

A batch of over 140 petitions are pending before the Court challenging the validity of the Act which spurred protests across the country which in turn led to the arrests of many.

The pleas which challenge the constitutionality of the Act were last mentioned in January 2020 and were never taken up during CJI Ramana's tenure.

Thursday, December 9 2021: Speaking at the 8th Convocation of the National Law University, Delhi, CJI Ramana said, "It is essential that more and more well-meaning, forward-looking, and upright students like you enter public life. After all, political consciousness and well-informed debates can steer the nation into a glorious future as envisioned by our Constitution."

Reservation for Economically Weaker Sections

A batch of petitions filed by NGOs Janhit Abhiyan and Youth for Equality, among others, challenged the validity of Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019 on the ground that economic classification cannot be the sole basis for reservation.

In August 2020, the top court agreed to refer the matter to a Constitution Bench, but there has been no development in the two years since.

Friday, July 2: Speaking at an event organised by Association of Indo-Americans, CJI Ramana said, "Honouring qualified talents from diverse backgrounds is also essential to sustain confidence of all the sections of the society in the system. This principle of inclusivity is universal."

In the recent past, CJI Ramana considered and referred to Constitution Benches, the Maharashtra political crisis case and the Delhi government v. Lieutenant Governor case.

Most interestingly, less than two days before his tenure came to an end, the Supreme Court published a notice stating that it will start listing twenty-five Constitution Bench matters pending before it from August 29, 2022.

Whether or not this was prompted by articles cropping up in every news platform about the inaction on Constitution Bench cases, is anybody's guess.

Inaction on other important matters

Apart from Constitution Bench matters, several other important issues are pending before the top court, details of which are set out in the two articles below, which were published on Bar & Bench 8 months ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.

Many significant matters before the Supreme Court were mentioned, but other than a "we will list it" or a "we will hear it", there have been no substantial hearings. Worse still, is the declining of requests for hearing with a simple "no urgency".

Some of the case that were met with such responses are challenges to the electoral bonds scheme, divorce through Talaq-e-hasan and the appeal against the Karnataka High Court's Hijab verdict.

Saturday, October 23, 2021: Speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the new annex building of the Bombay High Court's Aurangabad Bench, CJI Ramana said, "Common man deals with multiple issues in his lifetime and he should not hesitate in approaching courts. People’s faith in judiciary is biggest strength of democracy."

Perhaps cognizant of the criticism he would face, the master of roster, CJI Ramana listed five important cases for hearing on his penultimate day in office.

Judicial review of executive action

Of all the cases that came before the CJI during his tenure, one stands out, albeit only marginally.

On May 11, 2022, a Bench headed by CJI Ramana passed directions curbing the use of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises Sedition.

The Bench did not order a blanket stay on the operation of the provision itself, but said that it hopes and expects that the Central and State governments will refrain from registering any FIR, continuing investigation, or taking coercive steps under the said Section.

Sunday, December 26, 2022: Speaking at the fifth late Sri Lavu Venkateswarlu Endowment Lecture, CJI Ramana said,"It is a well-known fact that a popular majority is not a defence for arbitrary actions taken by a Government. Every action is mandatorily required to comply with the Constitution. If the judiciary does not have the power of judicial review, then the functioning of democracy in this country would be unthinkable."

The deference shown to the executive during the proceedings in the Sedition case was nearly consistent in most proceedings that took place over the past sixteen months, despite the CJI calling for strong judicial review of executive action.

Friday, Jul 2, 2022: Speaking at an event organised by Association of Indo-Americans, CJI Ramana said, "As we celebrate 75th year of Independence this year and as our Republic turned 72, with some sense of regret I must add here that we still haven’t learnt to appreciate wholly the roles and responsibilities assigned by the Constitution to each of the Institutions. The party in power believes that every governmental action is entitled to judicial endorsement. The parties in opposition expect the judiciary to advance their political positions and causes...Let me make it clear that we (judiciary) are answerable to the Constitution and Constitution alone."

Appointment of Judges

To give credit where it is due, appointments of judges and judicial officers is something that CJI Ramana had unprecedented success with.

His efforts at the helm of the Supreme Court Collegium were often coupled with openly calling out the Central government for delaying improvements of the Collegium's recommendations, not raising the number of judicial posts and not improving judicial infrastructure.

Saturday, April 30, 2022: Speaking at a joint conference of Chief Ministers (CM) and Chief Justices (CJ) of High Courts, CJI Ramana said, "As per sanctioned strength, we have just around 20 judges per 10 lakh population, which is alarmingly low."

Some 250 judges were appointed to High Courts over the last 16 months and according to data from the Ministry of Law and Justice, there are only 381 vacancies against the sanctioned strength of 1,108 judges in the High Courts as of July 2022.

The Supreme Court too saw a record number of appointments, with nine judges - including three women judges - taking oath simultaneously. The path is now clear for the first woman Chief Justice of India, Justice BV Nagarathna, to take oath in 2027. There are only 3 vacancies at the top court after three judges retired very recently.

Sunday, September 27, 2021: Speaking at an event organised by women lawyers of Supreme Court, CJI Ramana said, "Enough of suppression of thousands of years. It is high time we have 50% representation of women in judiciary. It is your right. It is not a matter of charity."

However, while the number of woman judges at the top court has increased, there remains an abject of dearth of representation in the courts below. Only 11.7% of all the current judges of the 25 High Courts in India are women.

What's next for CJI (retd.) NV Ramana?

As Chief Justice of India, Justice Ramana could have shaped the future of the Court, but did not do so, in direct contrast to what was happening outside the walls of the Supreme Court.

As his career spanning over 22 years comes to a close, it will be interesting to see what comes next for CJI Ramana. In one of the many conferences he attended and spoke at during his tenure as CJI, he has made it clear that he will continue to remain active in public life.

"I think 65 years is too early for someone to retire! I worked almost 22 years as a High Court judge, Supreme Court judge and CJI. The Indian judiciary, we know our date of retirement at the time of joining. There are no exceptions. I'm still left with decent amount of energy. I love to be among the people. It has been my nature since student days. One thing I can say for certain is that retirement from the judiciary does not mean that I will retire from public life," he recently said.

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