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Justice Jasti Chelameswar was elevated to the Supreme Court October 10, 2011. After completing a tenure of nearly seven years, or 2,447 days to be precise, Justice Chelameswar retired earlier this year on June 22.
Justice Chelameswar graduated in Law from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, in 1976. He was designated Senior Counsel in 1995, and went on to become Additional Advocate General for the state of Andhra Pradesh that same year.
He made the shift to the Bench when he was appointed as an Additional Judge of the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad in 1997. He went on to serve as Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court from 2007 to 2010, when he was transferred as Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court, before his eventual elevation to the Supreme Court.
He will go down in history as one of the judges that held the unprecedented press conference in January this year, an event no matter whose side you are on, asked some trying questions of the Indian Judiciary. Questions that will hopefully be addressed in the near future.
Having earned a reputation for constantly challenging established norms, Justice Chelameswar was branded as a “dissenting judge”, be it because of his minority judgment in the NJAC case, or his refusal to attend Collegium meetings in protest of how the appointment process was going.
Perhaps it will take more time to fully gauge Chelameswar J’s contribution in batting for a more transparent, accountable institution. For now, let us analyse the judgments he delivered while serving as a Supreme Court judge.
The reason behind the Press Conference
In January 2018, Chelameswar J – then the second senior most judge of the Apex Court – would hold a press conference with three of his senior colleagues, in protest of the way matters were being assigned to judges by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.
The chief grouse expressed by Chelameswar J and the other judges who held the conference was that matters of national and constitutional importance were not being assigned to them, in exercise of the Chief Justice of India’s power as master of roster.
So just how true is this allegation?
It certainly seems to be the case with respect to Chelameswar J. During the time Misra J was Chief Justice while Chelameswar J was still a Supreme Court judge (August 28, 2017 – June 22, 2018), the latter was involved in a total of 29 rulings. Out of these, Chelameswar J was not part of a single Constitution Bench, or even a three-judge bench. Needless to say, the numbers show that none of the cases he decided during this period carried any national or constitutional significance.
In contrast, over the rest of his career in the Supreme Court, Chelameswar J sat on a three-judge bench 41 times, and was part of a five-judge bench 5 times. He also sat on benches of six, seven, and nine judges one time each.
Monthly distribution of rulings
Justice Chelameswar was involved in a total of 337 orders and judgments, of which he authored 89. His most productive month was September, during which he passed 44 rulings.
The months of October, November and December were his least productive, having passed 19, 21, and 24 rulings respectively. On average, he passed around 4.2 reported rulings per month.
Chelameswar J’s daily productivity fluctuated from 0.09 rulings per day in October to 0.24 rulings per day in September.
Year-wise distribution of rulings
Chelameswar J’s most productive year was 2014, when he passed 69 rulings. He passed 53 and 63 rulings in the years prior to this. His least productive years, as is the case with most Supreme Court judges, were his last two in office; he passed 36 and 17 rulings in the years 2017 and 2018 respectively.
|Year||No. of Rulings|
Bench-wise distribution of rulings
Through the course of his tenure, Chelameswar J sat on a Division Bench with 20 different Supreme Court judges, including four Chief Justices of India – Justices P Sathasivam, Altamas Kabir, RM Lodha and TS Thakur. He sat on a Constitution Bench with former CJI JS Khehar, but never shared the bench with Dipak Misra after the latter became Chief Justice.
As mentioned earlier, he sat on a three-judge bench 41 times, and was part of a five-judge bench 5 times. He also sat on benches of six, seven, and nine judges one time each.
Chelameswar J sat on a two-judge bench most frequently with Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre, with whom he passed 65 rulings. He shared the bench with Sathasivam J 42 times and with AK Sikri J 37 times.
Case-type distribution of rulings
The most common type of case ruled on by Chelameswar J – as is often the case in the Supreme Court – was the Civil Appeal, which accounts for 62.3% of his rulings. He also decided on 70 Criminal Appeals, 21 Writ Petitions, and one Suo Motu Contempt Petition and Curative Petition each.
Throughout his tenure as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Chelameswar expressed reservations on the frivolous invocation of Article 136. As a junior lawyer who appeared before him writes,
“Both of us, First Timer and Second Timer were cheerfully counselled that our cases were to be dismissed for the sake of a higher principle: “think of what this Court is reduced to doing!”
He also valued the time of the Court and took a dim view of the unnecessary pursuit of litigation. The same was evident in Messer Holdings Ltd v. Shyam Madanmohan Ruia & Ors, where he imposed costs of Rs. 25 lakh on the petitioner for “abuse of the discretionary Jurisdiction of this Court under Article 136 by the rich and powerful in the name of a fight for justice”.
He also proved himself to be a pragmatic judge, ruling in favour of allowing the medical students caught in the Vyapam scam to complete their study and serve society thereafter. In his split decision, he held,
“The question is not whether these appellants deserve any sympathy. In my view, a larger question- whether this society can afford to waste such technically trained and qualified human resources which require enormous amounts of energy, time and other material resources to generate.”
He was part of the seven-judge Bench that made the unprecedented move of sending then sitting high court judge CS Karnan to prison for contempt. In a separate judgment, Justice Chelameswar along with now Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi expressed the need to revisit the process of selection and appointment of judges to the higher judiciary.
One of his most controversial rulings was that of Rajbala v. State of Haryana, wherein he upheld an amendment by the Haryana government to prescribe minimum educational qualifications to contest local body elections. This judgment is now under question after Justice Rohinton Nariman held in the Shayara Bano case that judgments citing the McDowell case to hold that arbitrariness could not be a ground for striking down a law, were bad in law. Rajbala was one of these judgments.
Another judgment that was criticized was his acquittal of former cricketer and politician Navjot Singh Sidhu in the 1998 road rage case that resulted in the death of one person. The Supreme Court has now agreed to hear a petition seeking a review of Chelameswar J’s penultimate ruling as a Supreme Court judge.
Justice Chelameswar’s first dissent came in April 2012, when he shared the Bench with then Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir and Justice SS Nijjar. In DMDK v. Election Commission of India, the majority upheld the constitutional validity of the 2000 amendment to the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968. However, Chelameswar J held that the amendment, insofar as it denies the reservation of a symbol for candidates set up by a political party with “insignificant poll performance,” is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.
His most famous dissent came in Supreme Court Advocate-on-Record Association v. Union of India, better known as the NJAC judgment, where he upheld the NJAC Act. In the last paragraph of his dissenting opinion, he calls for a “comprehensive reform of the system”, noting,
“Selection process of the Judges to the CONSTITUTIONAL COURTS is only one of the aspect of such reforms. An attempt in that direction, unfortunately, failed to secure the approval of this Court leaving this Court with the sole responsibility and exclusive accountability of the efficiency of the legal system.
I only part with this case recollecting the words of Macaulay – “reform that you may preserve” Future alone can tell whether I am rightly reminded of those words or not.”
Watch our Interview with Justice Chelameswar