Justice SA Bobde completed a year as Chief Justice of India (CJI) day before yesterday. By the time he demits office on April 23 next year, he would have been the longest serving Chief Justice of India in the past eight years. The late Justice SH Kapadia was last Supreme Court judge to have had a longer tenure as CJI.
Justice Bobde’s tenure witnessed an unprecedented crisis in the Apex Court’s and the Indian judiciary's history. For the first time since the establishment of legal system by the British, courts across India were forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic compelled courts to resort to video conference hearings, and led to a major overhaul in the manner of filing and hearing of cases. The number of cases heard by the top court also came down drastically as a result of the limited functioning of the court due to pandemic.
CJI Bobde's tenure has not been without its fair share of controversy, with the Supreme Court being criticised for its handling of the migrant crisis, and drawing flak for the listing of cases before it.
Below are some of the highlights from his tenure.
The single most important development during the tenure of Justice Bobde was the radical transformation that came about in the filing of cases at the Supreme Court with the launch of a new e-filing module.
While the e-filing facility had been in existence at the Supreme Court for nearly a decade, it was hardly used. In 2017, then CJI JS Khehar reintroduced the facility by launching an initiative towards digitization and online filing. The Supreme Court also migrated to a new website as part of the process, but the project went into cold storage after the retirement of Justice Khehar.
It was only after Justice Bobde took over as CJI and Justice DY Chandrachud assumed charge of the e-committee that things finally got moving. The stoppage of physical hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic gave impetus to the e-committee. A new e-filing module was launched in May 2020 and filing of cases in the Supreme Court became completely electronic.
“E-filing has virtually brought the Court Registry into the chamber of advocates and nothing can be simpler once the steps are understood. E-filing will make the work simpler and more efficient”, Justice Bobde said during the unveiling of the module.
The new e-filing facility is available round the clock, which means that a lawyer can file a case at any time of any day, irrespective of whether or not the Registry is working.
Besides, the Court has been hearing cases through video conference, with lawyers from different parts of the country arguing before it without having to come to Delhi.
The Supreme Court has steadily ramped up hearing through video conference and it remains to be seen whether the facility will continue even in a post-COVID world.
Justice Bobde has been consistently vocal when it come to environmental issues and protection of green cover.
During the hearing one such petition concerning felling of heritage trees for construction of the Railway Over Bridge expansion, the CJI readily agreed with the submissions advanced by Advocate Prashant Bhushan that deforestation could soon lead to irreversible damage.
In response to a statement by Bhushan that things might take a turn for the worse in another fifty years, CJI Bode said:
“It is believable, very believable. Before anybody knows, everything will be lost. People are not willing to explore alternatives. There could be a way to create a path without cutting trees though it might be a little more expensive."
He has also been equally keen while hearing a case seeking implementation of a 2012 government policy which mandates public transport vehicles and government fleets to switch to electric vehicles (EVs).
During one such hearing, he adverted to the statements made by Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari on the adoption of electric vehicles. Gadkari was made a party to the case and the CJI even asked the government law officer to find out whether the Minister could be personally present in Court to explain his views.
“He has made many statements on the issue. We are not indicting or ordering him. But want to hear him”, the CJI had said.
The CJI is an ardent motorcycle enthusiast and has been forthright about it. However, a seemingly innocuous photograph of him seated on a motorcycle generated a huge controversy, eventually culminating in a contempt of court case against Prashant Bhushan.
In the photo, the CJI was seated on a Harley Davidson during a visit to Nagpur. The photo went viral on social media on June 28, and it was also reported that the motorcycle belonged to the son of BJP leader Sonba Musale. Justice Bobde clarified that the photo was taken at a motorcycle showroom and that the bike in question was shown to him by the showroom when he had put in a request to check out a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Bhushan shared the photo from his Twitter account on June 29. The accompanying tweet read:
“The CJI rides a Rs 50-lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without wearing a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC on lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!”
This along with another tweet from Bhushan on the functioning of the Supreme Court led to a suo motu contempt of court case against the activist lawyer. The Court, it seemed, wanted to coax an apology from Bhushan and close the case, but Bhushan remained adamant and refused to tender an apology. He was eventually convicted and a token fine of Re. 1 was imposed on him as punishment.
The fact that it took the Supreme Court only 41 days to dispose of the matter after it was first listed did not help its image. The case was heard at a time when the Court was functioning in a limited manner with only urgent cases being taken up. Given the circumstances, the necessity of hearing and deciding the case in such an expeditious manner was naturally questioned.
The case achieved nothing apart from consuming considerable judicial time and bringing bad press to the Court.
One of the biggest tests Justice Bobde’s Court faced was the slew of petitions filed in the first two months of the pandemic highlighting the plight of the citizenry due to the lockdown and the sudden halt in all economic activities.
The most glaring of the many issues raised in this regard was the condition of migrant labourers.
The lockdown in the country, which began on March 25, had led to an exodus of labourers from large cities to their far-off native towns and villages. With public transport unavailable during the initial phases of lockdown, many of them had set out on foot and bicycles along with their families to reach their homes thousands of kilometers away from the metro cities.
This had led to a lot of deaths due to exhaustion and accidents on the road.
While various High Courts had stepped in to express empathy towards the plight of their fellow countrymen and passed orders imploring the Central and State governments to take strong measures, the Supreme Court’s handling of similar petitions came under scathing criticism.
The Court’s first opportunity to examine the issue came in the final week of March when a public interest litigation, Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India, came up before it highlighting the troubles faced by migrant workers due to the sudden lockdown.
The Central government, however, asserted before the Court that no migrant labourers were on the road and that all of them had been taken to government shelters and were being provided food.
“There is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns/villages”, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Court.
The Court accepted the same and declined to pass any order in the matter.
A plea for payment of minimum wages to migrant workers during the lockdown also met a similar fate, with the Court refusing to pass any directions in the matter. The petition was dismissed on April 21.
CJI Bobde, who was hearing that case, asked,
“If they are being provided meals why do they need money for meals?"
CJI SA Bobde
Later, a plea seeking free transportation for migrant workers to their native states was filed. Again, the Apex Court refused to interfere and left it to the concerned states to take action. The Court reiterated that it cannot pass orders based on media reports.
“How can we stop people from walking? It is impossible for this Court to monitor who is walking and who is not walking”, the Court said during the hearing of that matter.
Eventually, some strong newspaper articles by former judges coupled with a strongly worded letter by twenty lawyers from Delhi and Bombay led to the Court listing a suo motu case on the troubles faced by migrant workers.
The Court then passed a slew of directions to provide free transportation and food to migrants, prompting the Central and state governments to spring into action. However, by then, the damage had already been done.
Listing of cases has been a subject of controversy at the Supreme Court for the past three years, if not more. Leaving the listing of cases to the subjective discretion of the CJI has led to umpteen allegations against CJIs since the time of Justice JS Khehar, and it has been no different even with the current CJI.
There is no doubt that the CJI’s exercise of the master of roster powers does have an impact on the outcome of a case in a court with a multitude of voices.
The latest to the list was the case of Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, whose case was heard by a special vacation bench even though the Court was closed for the Diwali break.
There have been demands from various quarters of the Bar to lay down guidelines for listing of cases and to computerise the whole process so that there is minimal human intervention. But the Court seems reluctant to take any step in this regard.
CJI Bobde has also been candid about discouraging the invocation of Article 32 jurisdiction and approaching the Supreme Court directly. For Habeas Corpus and other personal liberty matters, as well as public interest litigation petitions, he has time and again asked many petitioners to approach jurisdictional High Courts first.
He recently took exception to the filing of a PIL seeking exemption from payment of school fees in Uttarakhand amid the pandemic, commenting,
"Petitioners these days are invoking the jurisdiction of the court in all matters whether it be education or migrants... like an omnibus jurisdiction."
While some cases are "fact-intensive", there are other petitions which raise concerns that are "purely within the executive domain," he added.
Similarly, during the hearing of the plea seeking the release of detained journalist Siddique Kappan, Bobde J. said that the Court is trying to discourage the use of Article 32. He also hinted that his Bench would eventually ask the petitioner to move the Allahabad High Court.
However, in a departure from this stance, a Bench headed by Justice Bobde summoned Vilas Athawale, Assistant Secretary of the Maharashtra Vidhan Mandal Sachivalaya, for allegedly intimidating Arnab Goswami. He had observed in that case,
"The officer says how did you file this notice in the Supreme Court. How dare he? No one can be stopped from approaching this Court."
CJI SA Bobde
The Bench went on to add,
"The intention of the officer seems to be to intimidate the petitioner because he moved the Supreme Court and to threaten him with penalty for doing so. The officer would have been well advised that the right to approach this Court under Article 32 is itself a fundamental right."
The Bench was perturbed by the fact that Athawale had written a letter to Goswami on October 13 allegedly berating the journalist for producing before the Supreme Court, the minutes of proceedings sent to him by the Speaker and Privileges Committee of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly in relation to a breach of privilege motion.
With the pandemic virtually bringing the justice system to its knees, it has by no means been an easy period to head the most powerful court in the world. But such are the expectations that go hand in hand with this power that come what may, the people of India expect the Apex Court to be infallible. Justice Bobde himself said recently,
“Let justice be done though heavens may fall.”