The Supreme Court of India has been functioning with one woman judge for the last two years
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The Supreme Court of India has been functioning with one woman judge for the last two years

Murali Krishnan

In an earlier piece, we had analysed the parent High Courts of all Supreme Court judges till date. In this piece, we take a look at the apex court’s women judges.

The Supreme Court Collegium is expected to meet soon to recommend names of judges for elevation to the apex court. While different High Court judges are in the zone of consideration, one aspect that will be keenly watched is whether a woman judge will be among those elevated.

The Supreme Court of India has been functioning with only one woman judge, Justice R Banumathi, for the past two years.

When she took charge on August 13, 2014, she joined Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai on the Bench. Less than two months later, Justice Desai bid adieu to Supreme Court, leaving Banumathi J. as the sole woman judge of Supreme Court.

A data analysis of women judges in the Supreme Court till date does not reveal a pretty picture.

For the first 39 years since its establishment in 1950, the Supreme Court did not have a single woman judge on the Bench.

Justice Fathima Beevi

Justice Fathima Beevi
Justice Fathima Beevi

The first woman judge of the Supreme Court was Justice Fathima Beevi. Justice Beevi enrolled as an advocate in 1950 and started her judicial career as a Munsiff in the Kerala Sub-ordinate Judicial Services. She rose through the ranks and was appointed as judge of the Kerala High Court in 1983.

What is noteworthy is that she retired as a judge of the Kerala High Court in April 1989, but was nevertheless elevated to Supreme Court after her retirement.

She served as Supreme Court judge from October 6, 1989 to April 29, 1992.

After she retired from the Supreme Court in April 1992, the Court remained without a woman judge for more than two years.

Justice Sujata Manohar

Justice Sujata Manohar was the next woman judge of the Supreme Court, with a tenure of five years lasting from 1994 to 1999.

Justice Sujata Manohar
Justice Sujata Manohar

Justice Manohar enrolled at the Bar in 1958 and practised in the Bombay High Court. She was appointed judge of the Bombay High Court in 1978 and became its Chief Justice in 1994. She was then transferred to Kerala High Court as its Chief Justice, before being elevated to Supreme Court.

She served in the Supreme Court from November 8, 1994 to August 27, 1999.

Justice Ruma Pal

After Justice Manohar’s retirement in August 1999, there was no woman judge for nearly 5 months till Justice Ruma Pal was elevated to the Supreme Court in January 2000.

The Supreme Court of India has been functioning with one woman judge for the last two years

Pal J. started her law practice in 1968. She was appointed as judge of the Calcutta High Court in 1990 and was elevated to the Supreme Court on January 28, 2000.

Pal J. is considered one of the outstanding judges in the history of the Supreme Court. She entered the institution with a no-nonsense reputation.

She retired on June 3, 2006, thereby becoming the longest serving woman judge of the Supreme Court. Even after retirement, she continued being a vocal critic of all that is wrong with the Indian judiciary.

After Pal J. retired, the Supreme Court remained without a woman judge for nearly four years, the longest such gap since the first woman judge was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1989.

Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra

This long hiatus ended with the appointment of Justice Gyan Sudha Misra on April 30, 2010.

Justice Gyan Sudha Misra
Justice Gyan Sudha Misra

Misra J. became rather infamous for her habit of coming late to court regularly. This had led to a spat with the Times of India, which had published an article about the same.

Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra continued as the sole woman judge in apex court for more than a year till September 2011, when Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai joined her. The two then adorned the Bench for more than three years, till Justice Misra’s retirement in April 2014. 

Justice Misra and Justice Desai were also the first woman judges to sit together in an all woman’s Bench in Supreme Court.

Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai

Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai
Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai

Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai joined the legal profession in 1973. She became a judge of the Bombay High Court in 1996 and was elevated as a Judge of Supreme Court of India on September 13, 2011.

After the exit of Justice Misra, Justice Desai was the sole woman judge in the apex court for nearly 3 months. Subsequently, Justice Banumathi was appointed to the Supreme Court in August 2014. When Justice Desai retired on October 29, 2014, Justice Banumathi became the sole serving woman judge of the highest court.

PeriodWoman judge
January 28, 1950 to April 28, 1989Nil
October 06, 1989 to April 29, 1992Justice Fathima Beevi
April 30, 1992 to November 07, 1994Nil
November 08, 1994 to August 27, 1999Justice Sujata V Manohar
August 28, 1999 to January 27, 2000Nil
January 28, 2000 to June 03, 2006Justice Ruma Pal
June 04, 2006 to April 29, 2010Nil
April 30, 2010 to September 12, 2011Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra
September 13, 2011 to April 27, 2014Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra and Justice Ranjan Prakash Desai
April 28, 2014 to August 12, 2014Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai
August 13, 2014 to October 29, 2014Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai and Justice R Banumathi
October 30, 2014 till dateJustice R Banumathi

Justice R Banumathi

The only sitting woman judge of the Supreme Court, Justice R Banumathi enrolled as a lawyer in 1981. Like Justice Fathima Beevi, Justice Banumathi started her career from the subordinate judiciary.

She entered the Tamil Nadu Higher Judicial Service as a direct recruit District Judge in 1988 and worked as District and Sessions Judge in various districts of the state. She was appointed judge of the Madras High Court in 2003.

She was elevated to the Supreme Court on August 13, 2014 and will serve in the apex court till July 19, 2020.

As was noted in our earlier piece, out of the two hundred and twenty-four judges to have served at the Supreme Court, there have been only six women judges till date, with none of them becoming the CJI.

The poor representation of half of the country’s population is, in fact, so obvious that it can be asserted without any data compilation. With just six woman judges, women’s representation in Supreme Court stands at a mere 2.6 percent.

So who is likely to join Justice R Banumathi?

This question has been doing rounds for quite some time now. There is a lot of speculation regarding different candidates.

What is noteworthy is that if a woman judge is elevated to the Supreme Court, it will be the third time in its history that the apex court would have two woman judges at a time.

The Bar is keenly watching as to who will make the final cut.

Murali Krishnan is Associate Editor at Bar & Bench. He tweets at legaljournalist.

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