The four protesting judges say while the CJI is master of the roster, Misra is breaching protocol by ‘selectively assigning cases’ to ‘preferred benches’.
New Delhi: The protest by four senior Supreme Court judges against the Chief Justice of India’s decision-making on the administrative side has brought into focus the process of assigning cases to judges — and the little-known but powerful secretary-general who has been heading the registry since 2013.
Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph and Madan B. Lokur said CJI Dipak Misra was in breach of long-held protocol by “selectively assigning cases” to “preferred benches”. In a letter, the four judges reminded the CJI that while it was his “privilege to determine the roster”, it was “not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual, of the Chief Justice over his colleagues.”
How the process works
India’s apex court sits usually sits in benches of two judges. Larger benches are formed as and when it is necessary. The CJI, as ‘master of the roster’, has the prerogative to allocate cases to all other judges in the court. The Supreme Court registry – the back-end office that receives and processes all documents – makes the allocation based on his orders.
The apex court’s roster is based on broadly-divided ‘subject matters’. When a fresh case is filed before the court, it has to be put under one of the ‘subject categories’ listed in the Supreme Court Rules, 2013. There are about 47 broad categories – Letter Petition and Public Interest Litigation matters, academic matters, service matters etc., with multiple sub-categories within them.
Many lawyers agree that in the Supreme Court, cases are not allocated strictly based on the roster. Many CJIs list important cases before themselves or send them to other benches depending on the workload of judges.
Mostly, more than one bench is allocated the same subject matter. For example, PILs could go to either of the two benches that are allocated the subject matter, or could go to any other bench as per the CJI’s orders.
This arrangement is slightly different in high courts, where the roster is more specific. For example, the Delhi High Court’s current roster has all possible categories of cases divided evenly among judges.
The apex court does not make the allocation public, while high courts put it in public domain.
This allocation would be made manually, but for over a decade, the registry has had digital support to automatically send the case to the concerned bench. The only exception to this is, of course, an order passed by the CJI.
Who heads the registry?
The registry consists of six registrars and is headed by a secretary-general. The current secretary-general, Ravindra Maithani, has been in office since 2013.
Although every CJI has his own preference for the post of the secretary-general, Maithani has survived seven successive CJIs, except T.S. Thakur.
In 2016, Thakur had replaced Maithani with V.S.R. Avadhani, an Andhra Pradesh-based officer. However, Thakur’s successor J.S. Khehar brought Maithani back as soon as he was appointed CJI.
The officers at the apex court registry are judicial officers of the rank of a district judge. They are mostly on deputation to the apex court, and after their term, return to their home cadres.
In some instances, they are appointed as judges of high courts. A.I.S. Cheema, who headed the registry before Maithani, was appointed a judge of the Bombay High Court. After retirement, he was appointed a member of the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal.
Misra’s handling of the registry
Besides setting up a constitution bench hurriedly in the medical college case, the CJI has in an instance ordered that cases be shifted to his court from benches of other judges.
Misra had also passed an administrative order that fresh mentioning of cases (request to list them) will only be allowed before the CJI.
The anguish expressed by the four judges is that the CJI’s departure from established rules would “lead to unpleasant and undesirable consequences of creating doubt in the body politic about the integrity of the institution”.