The Supreme Court today reaffirmed that the Chief Justice of India is the Master of Roster. This is the third time in eight months that the Court has reiterated this principle.
The judgment was passed by Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan in a petition filed by Senior Advocate and former Law Minister Shanti Bhushan. Justice Bhushan wrote a separate but concurring judgment. Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan appeared for Shanti Bhushan.
The Court placed reliance on the judgments of the Supreme Court in the CJAR case and the Asok Pande case to hold that the expression ‘Chief Justice of India’ cannot be interpreted to mean ‘Collegium of five senior most judges’ when it comes to allocation of cases.
Interestingly, the Court stated at the outset that it is not treating this petition as an adversarial litigation, and is not doubting the bonafides of the petitioner.
In his petition, Bhushan had sought, inter alia, that the power to list matters be shared with the senior most judges of the Supreme Court, contending that the Master of Roster power “cannot be unguided and unbridled discretionary power, exercised arbitrarily by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India”.
It was also claimed by him that the manner in which politically sensitive matters were being listed before select judges was a violation of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and Handbook of Practice and Procedure, 2017.
The petition had also enlisted a number of politically sensitive cases in which there was “gross abuse of power” as regards listing.
It was prayed that the Supreme Court issue a writ declaring that listing of matters must strictly adhere to the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and Handbook on Practice and Procedure and Office Procedure, subject to the following clarification:
The words ‘Chief Justice of India’ must be deemed to mean a collegium of 5 senior judges of this Hon’ble Court.
Further, it also sought that for listing purposes, consultation by the Registry Officials with the Chief Justice of India must include consultation with senior-most judges of the Court.
In November 2017, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by CJI Dipak Misra had, under circumstances mired in controversy, held that the Chief Justice is the master of the roster. This, after Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) and Kamini Jaiswal had filed petitions seeking a probe into the allegations of judicial corruption in relation to the medical college admissions case.
Subsequently, in April, Shanti Bhushan had filed the current PIL. However, immediately after that, a dubious PIL came to be filed by one Asok Pande.
Pande had prayed that Rules be framed for constituting benches and allotting jurisdiction to different Benches in the Supreme Court and High Courts. Further, it was also prayed by him that Constitution Benches constituted by the Supreme Court should be composed of five senior-most judges.
The Bench headed by CJI heard Pande for less than five minutes before reserving verdict in the matter without issuing notice to the respondent, i.e. the Supreme Court. And two days later, the Court delivered a 16-page verdict in which it asserted the power of the Chief Justice of India to oversee listing of matters, while stating that in the allocation of cases and the constitution of benches, the Chief Justice has an exclusive prerogative.
And that was not all. When Shanti Bhushan’s PIL later came up for hearing, Pande made a curious appearance. Standing on the respondent’s side (opposing Bhushan’s petition), Pande pointed out that the Supreme Court has delivered a verdict affirming CJI as master of roster.
Read the judgment: