On November 9, Justice DY Chandrachud completed one year as Chief Justice of India (CJI), a position that has come under close scrutiny in the recent past. His predecessors have copped some criticism for a host of reasons, chief of those being the failure to deal with cases of constitutional importance in a timely manner, and the tendency to side with the executive in such cases.
So how has Justice Chandrachud measured up against former CJIs who were handed the proverbial poisoned chalice? What changes has he brought to functioning of the apex court of the country? What important judgments has he passed over the past year? And what are the challenges he faces with one more at the helm of affairs?
In the first of this two-part article, we take a look at the significant judgments Chandrachud CJ has been part of, the observations he has made out of court and the important cases that await adjudication.
1. Tussle between Delhi government and Lieutenant Governor
On May 11, 2023, a Bench of CJI Chandrachud and Justices MR Shah, Krishna Murari, Hima Kohli and PS Narasimha, in a unanimous verdict, held that the Delhi government would have control over all services in the national capital, including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). The exceptions were subjects pertaininig to land, police, and law and order.
Explaining the reason behind its decision, the Court said,
"LG shall exercise powers under the administrative role as entrusted by the President. Executive administration can only extend to matters which fall outside the scope of the legislative assembly...and it cannot mean administration over entire NCT Delhi. Otherwise, the purpose of having a separate elected body in Delhi will be rendered futile."
2. Maharashtra Political Crisis
On the same day, the same Constitution Bench held that the decision of former Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari's to call for a floor test based on the request of 34 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of the Eknath Shinde faction was incorrect. It was noted that Koshyari did not have enough objective material before him to conclude that then Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had lost the confidence of the House.
However, the Court held that the status quo cannot be restored, since Thackeray did not face the floor test, but instead chose to resign.
3. Selection of district Judges in Kerala
On July 12, 2023, a Bench of CJI DY Chandrachud and Justices Hrishikesh Roy, PS Narasimha, Pankaj Mithal and Manoj Misra ruled that the selection process adopted by the Kerala High Court for the recruitment of district judges in 2017 suffered from several infirmities and was in violation of the Kerala Higher Judicial Services Rules of 1961.
However, it did not unseat the candidates selected in 2017, opining that doing so would be harsh to them and would also deprive the judiciary of experienced judges.
4. Same-sex marriage
On October 17 this year, three of the five judges on the bench - Justices Ravindra Bhat, Hima Kohli and PS Narasimha - delivered the majority opinion which refused to recognise the right of same-sex couples to marry, enter into civil unions, or jointly adopt children. The majority held that it is upto Parliament to make laws enabling the same.
However, CJI DY Chandrachud and Justice SK Kaul in their separate minority opinion ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to recognise their relationships as civil unions and can claim consequential benefits. They also said that such couples have the right to adopt children and struck down adoption regulations to the extent it prevented the same.
CJI Chandrachud's opinion delved deepest into the issue and the history of discrimination against queer persons. He disagreed with the Central government's stance that courts cannot examine issues concerning the rights of LGBTQ+ couples as it would be anti-democratic. The CJI also termed the Central government's stance on this aspect 'a narrow view of democracy'.
"If all decisions of the elected wing of the State are considered to be democratic decisions purely because of the manner in which it is vested with power, what then, is the purpose of the fundamental rights and the purpose of vesting this Court with the power of judicial review?"
A review petition has now been moved challenging the correctness of the apex court's verdict.
1. MediaOne Ban: Freedom of press and sealed cover jurisprudence
On April 5, 2023, a Bench of CJI Chandrachud and Justice Hima Kohli set aside the Central government's refusal to renew the broadcasting license of Malayalam news channel MediaOne.
The Bench held that the Centre's claims of national security being affected as a result of the channel's licence renewal cannot be made "on the basis of thin air".
Pertinently, the Court refused to accept the stance of the Central government that it could only reveal reasons for the ban in a sealed cover. The Court said that sealed cover proceedings violate the principles of natural justice.
"The power of courts to secure material in a sealed cover when contradistinguished with the scope of assessment of public interest immunity claims is rather unguided and ad-hoc... Additionally, while public interest immunity claims conceivably impact the principles of natural justice, sealed cover proceedings infringe the principles natural justice and open justice," the Court added.
The Court also underscored the role of a free and independent press, noting that critical views expressed by the media cannot be classified as anti-establishment.
2. Right of children born of void/voidable marriages to parents’ ancestral property in Hindu joint family
On September 1, 2023, a Bench of CJI Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra held that children born out of void or voidable marriages can claim a right in their parents' ancestral property in joint Hindu families following the Mitakshara system of law. It was further held that held that a child under Section 16(1) and Section 16(2) of Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) would be a legitimate kin under the Hindu Succession Act (HSA).
However, it was clarified that children from void/voidable marriages will not have rights to or on the property of any other person in the family.
3. Grant of default bail under Section 167 CrPC
On May 1, 2023, a Bench of CJI Chandrachud and JB Pardiwala held that an accused is not entitled to default bail under 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) on the ground that the chargesheet filed within the prescribed time period does not have the valid sanction of the authority.
The Court further held that whether sanction is required or not is to be considered during the stage of taking cognizance, and it cannot be said that taking sanction from the authority is part of the prosecution process.
4. Independence of the district judiciary
On May 19, 2023, a Bench of CJI Chandrachud, and Justices V Ramasubramanian and PS Narasimha underscored the importance of an independent district judiciary, especially seeing as how it is often the only physically accessible institution for obtaining justice for most citizens.
"The independence of the district judiciary must also be equally a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. Without impartial and independent judges in the district judiciary, Justice, a preambular goal would remain illusory. The district judiciary is, in most cases, also the Court which is most accessible to the litigant," the Court said.
The Court said that judges are not employees of the State but holders of public office who wield sovereign judicial power.
5. Delay in promotion of women Army officers
The Supreme Court on December 9, 2022 asked the Indian Army to put its “house in order” as it has not been “fair” to the women officers who have alleged delay in promotions after being granted permanent commission on the directions of the top court in 2020.
A Bench comprising the CJI and Justice PS Narasimha was hearing a plea of 34 women army officers who have alleged that junior male officers are being considered over them for promotions to perform “combat and commanding roles” in the army.
“We feel that you (army) have not been fair to these women officers. We are going to pass a peremptory order on Tuesday…You better set your house in order and tell us what you are doing for them."
6. Violence against women in Manipur
CJI Chandrachud had said,
"Simply unacceptable. Using women as an instrument in an area of communal strife. Grossest of constitutional abuse. We are deeply disturbed by the videos which have emerged. If the government does not act, we will."
In a series of hearings that followed, the top court closely monitored the probe into the arrests and investigation in the cases where women and children were involved. The Court also formed a committee of former woman judges to look into the issues being faced by the victims of the violence and to closely watch over how the CBI investigation proceeds in the Manipur violence case.
In the recent past, CJIs have often been invited to speak at occasions of importance, and CJI Chandrachud was no different. Here are some snippets on what he has said outside the four walls of the Supreme Court.
On the legal profession
At the start of this year, he conceded that the legal profession has been feudalistic and unwelcoming of women and the racially disadvantaged.
In the speech at Harvard Law School, he lamented the tendency to glorify burnout in the legal profession. He frowned upon long nights spent by lawyers, being overworked, having financial worries and poor mental health.
CJI Chandrachud voiced his concern that the arbitration space in India was an old boys' club.
Earlier, he implored senior lawyers to pay their juniors a decent salary so that the Bar becomes democratised.
On legal education
On the topic of legal education, the CJI questioned the language and educational barriers that the law entrance exam poses, stating,
"Only those people can crack CLAT who have access to English schools and good schools. Access to legal profession? We are laying down barriers."
Taking the same forward, he asked law students from so-called 'premier' institutions not to look down on other students.
On technology in the justice system
The CJI favoured lawyers using electronic devices like iPads and laptops inside courtrooms, provided they are using it for constructive purposes and not for watching movies.
He said that Artificial intelligence can be used to perpetuate discrimination, citing research that showed that many AI systems have shown prejudiced decision making based on data inputs.
On media and the courts
On judging and the judiciary
The CJI said that the Supreme Court is not a poly-vocal court, but a people-centric one. He praised the judiciary for the role it plays in people's lives, emphasising that judges have a stabilising influence on society.
Pertinently, he remarked that unlike the legislature or the political executive, judges go by constitutional morality over popular morality, and that is one of the judiciary's strong features.
Justice Chandrachud has exactly a year to go before he demits office on November 10, 2024. Within this timeframe, he is expected to pass many more judgments of constitutional and national importance.
Judgments in the following cases, which have been reserved by benches led by CJI Chandrachud, are expected to be pronounced in the next couple of months:
- Electoral Bonds case: The matter concerns the legal validity of the electoral bonds scheme that allows unlimited, anonymous donations to political parties.
- Article 370 abrogation case The case deals with the challenges to the Central government's 2019 move to revoke the special status earlier conferred on the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir.
- Case dealing with the question of whether unstamped arbitration agreements are valid in law.
- Case dealing with whether the legal immunity enjoyed by legislators under Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution protects them from prosecution for taking bribes.
Key cases like the grant of minority status to Central-funded institutions, the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) case, petitions challenging the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 and long-pending nine-judge bench matters in tax cases are yet to be listed for final hearing.
In Part II, we turn a critical eye to CJI Chandrachud's efforts to digitise the judiciary, the changes he has brought to the Supreme Court, his relationship with the executive and more.