Shattering the judiciary's glass ceiling: Who are the three women judges recommended for elevation to the Supreme Court?

Profiles of the three women judges, who through their judgments tackled systemic patriarchy and sexism, made hard-hitting observations, and expressed empathetic and welfare-oriented views.
Justices Hima Kohli, Nagarathna & Bela Trivedi
Justices Hima Kohli, Nagarathna & Bela Trivedi

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court Collegium made nine recommendations for elevation to the Supreme Court. In what could be a first, three women were among the names recommended by the Collegium in one go.

Justices Hima Kohli (Chief Justice of Telangana High Court), BV Nagarathna (Karnataka High Court judge) and Bela Trivedi (Gujarat High Court judge) await confirmation from the Central government for elevation to the top court.

Here are the profiles of these three women judges and their journey so far.

Justice Hima Kohli

Justice Kohli was born and brought up in New Delhi. She was appointed an additional judge of the Delhi High Court on May 29, 2006 and took oath as a permanent Judge on August 29, 2007. She went on to become the first and only woman Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court on January 7, 2021.

She played a fundamental role in championing the cause of public health during the COVID-19 crisis, as a judge of the Delhi High Court.

In June 2020, a Division Bench led by Justice Kohli allowed private hospitals equipped with labs and permitted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to conduct COVID-19 tests, in a bid to prevent Delhi from becoming the 'Corona Capital' of the country (Rakesh Malhotra v. NCT of Delhi).

On March 28, 2020, a High-Powered Committee headed by Justice Kohli relaxed the criteria for release of undertrial prisoners on interim bail from Delhi jails in view of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the Supreme Court’s concern over overcrowding in jails.

Apart from her contributions during the pandemic, Justice Kohli is known to have developed a strong jurisprudence in the area of matrimonial disputes through a feminist lens.

In one of her widely appreciated judgments, she held that a wife’s conduct of being interested in remaining in her room or not showing initiative in doing household work can by no stretch of imagination be described as cruel behaviour towards the husband (Vishal Singh v. Priya).

In another case, a husband sought dissolution of a marriage on the ground of cruelty, claiming that his wife was rude and cruel immediately after marriage and would pick quarrels with the family and refused physical relations with him. The Bench of Justice Asha Menon and Hima Kohli found that none of these acts, if at all committed by the wife, would tantamount to ‘cruel’ conduct.

A new bride would be hesitant in her new surroundings in the matrimonial home. It is always for the husband’s family to make the new bride feel at home and accepted as a family member.”

In fact, during her address at a webinar titled Domestic Violence During Lockdown: An Invisible Pandemic conducted last year, Justice Kohli rubbished the need for gender neutral laws for domestic violence in India. She said,

In our society, we haven’t reached the point where men have needed protection from women. If there comes a time that women have an upper hand, then surely the legislature will amend laws to protect men. I am not saying there is no misuse, this cannot be a ground to trash the law. We can do as much as we can to nip the misuse at the bud. However, there is no denying that the power structure is in the favour of men.”

In our society, we haven’t reached the point where men have needed protection from women.
Justice Hima Kohli

In another landmark judgement dating back to 2012 that reflected her welfare-oriented approach to adjudication, Justice Hima Kohli held that a child with 100% hearing disability fell under the ambit of “Disadvantaged Category”. (Aarav Porwal v. The Mother International School)

When a school refused to admit a hearing-impaired child after misinterpreting orders passed by the Commissioner (Disabilities), the Court directed the school to admit the child along with costs of ₹10,000 that would be adjusted in his school fee.

Kohli chastised the school and observed, "The approach of the school flies in the face of the very aim and object of the Right to Education Act, 2009 and the Delhi School Education Order 2011 and its conduct amounts to frustrating the rightful aspirations of children like the petitioner herein, who is disabled being 100% hearing impaired.."

Justice BV Nagarathna

Justice Nagarathna enrolled as an advocate on October 28, 1987 at Bangalore, where she practiced till she was appointed as an additional judge of the Karnataka High Court on February 18, 2008. She was made a permanent Judge on February 17, 2010. She is also the daughter of the former Chief Justice of India ES Venkataramiah.

She was subject to great public attention when she was forcibly detained within the Karnataka High Court premises by a squad of protesting lawyers in 2009.

Over the last thirteen years as a judge, she has delivered many significant judgments and made several hard-hitting observations in her verdicts. Some of them are detailed below.

In one of her most recent judgments from July 2021, Justice Nagarathna held that there may be illegitimate parents but there cannot be illegitimate children and that parliament should enact a law granting equal protection and rights to the latter.

This judgment came against a circular stating that the second wife of a man or her children will not be eligible for compassionate appointment if the marriage had taken place during the subsistence of the first marriage.

While hearing a joint divorce petition in December last year, Justice Nagarathna made certain strong remarks on systemic patriarchy and said,

Ours is a patriarchal society that does not know how to treat an empowered woman. Parents don't teach their sons on how to treat an empowered woman... That is a problem with men, I will say that.”

The judgment also stated that in a marriage, the mother-in-law should not interfere unnecessarily once the wife comes into the picture.

In a 2012 judgment, Justice Nagarathna observed,

While truthful dissemination of information is an essential requirement of any broadcasting channel, sensationalism in the form of ‘Breaking News', ‘Flash News' or in any other form must be curbed.” (Advocates Association Bangalore v. UOI)

The Bench was hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Advocates' Association seeking directions to regulate the media, particularly television channels. At the time, the Central government was directed find ways to regulate broadcast media through a statutory framework.

However, Justice Nagarathna observed that the concept of regulation of broadcast media should not be understood to mean control by the government or the powers that be.

While truthful dissemination of information is an essential requirement of any broadcasting channel, sensationalism must be curbed.
Justice BV Nagarathna

If the Central government clears the August 17 Collegium recommendations, the country will see its first woman Chief Justice of India when Justice Nagarathna assumes the post in 2027.

Justice Bela Trivedi

Justice Trivedi was elevated to the Bench of the Gujarat High Court as an additional judge on February 17, 2011 and was transferred as an additional judge of the Rajasthan High Court at Jodhpur on June 27, 2011. Subsequently, she was elevated as a permanent judge at the Gujarat High Court on February 9, 2016.

Justice Trivedi’s judgments reflect a component of empathetic, welfare jurisprudence. This view was affirmed by her decision refusing bail to a man accused of animal cruelty.

When a habitual offender was found transporting 22 animals for slaughter with their legs and necks tied in a cruel manner, without provision of food or water, Justice Trivedi took strong exception. (Akrambhai Shaukatbhai Posti v. State of Gujarat)

Animals, like the human beings have the capability of comprehending the physical and mental pain and that they do feel severity of the physical harm inflicted on them,” she stated in her judgment.

In a much talked about verdict, a Bench led by Justice Trivedi passed a death sentence against a 22-year-old man accused of raping and murdering a three-and-a-half-year-old girl in Surat (Anil Surendrasingh Yadav v. State of Gujarat).

The Bench in its detailed, 70-page judgment, explained why the crime fell under the rarest of rare cases,

The abhorrent and atrocious nature of crime committed by the appellant/accused in diabolical manner, on the defenseless unprotected girl of 3½ years, without any remorse, has left the Court with no option but to consider the case as the "rarest of rare case" for awarding the punishment of death penalty.”

It was also observed,

Such crimes do not only reflect the abusive facet of human conduct but also shock collective conscience of the society.”

This judgment was subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court.

In its 70-year long history, the Supreme Court has a total of 8 women Justices. The first of these eight was Justice Fathima Beevi who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1989.

The only sitting woman Judge of the Supreme Court is Justice Indira Banerjee, who will demit office on 23 September 2022.

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