Today, Ranjan Gogoi takes over as the 46th Chief Justice of India, following a long line of judges who have barely had enough time in the top seat.
Judges who spend years in the apex court often find their days numbered when they ascend to the top. On average, a Supreme Court justice takes a little over six years to become the Chief Justice, but gets only about a year and half to lead it.
Gogoi has secured the job in less than average time, but he will also serve less than the average tenure – of 13 months, nearly the same as his predecessor Dipak Misra.
Supreme Court judges retire at 65 and most have only a few years left when they are appointed. As such, a steady stream of judges passes through the court’s corridors. A consequence is the court continues to have vacancies despite its steadily increasing sanctioned strength.
In its 68 years, the court has been filled to its sanctioned capacity for just 10 years, most recently in 2001. Currently, after Misra’s retirement, seven of the 31 seats are vacant.
A high turnover of judges also means the collegium – a powerful body composed of the Chief Justice and four senior-most judges that makes appointments to the higher judiciary – changes constantly.
The constant churn and perpetual shortage of judges does not help the large volume of pending cases either, as Misra noted in July.
One small but significant change the court has seen since its inception is the age at which judges are appointed. In the 1950s, judges were on an average 57 when they took office. In the last decade, the average age has risen to a little over 59 years.
This has considerably narrowed the window of opportunity to become the Chief Justice. Most of the judges who rise to the top job are in the court by the time they turn 58. In Gogoi’s case, though, he was appointed six months after he turned 58.
Of course, it doesn’t always work this way. Jayantilal Shah took 11 years to become the Chief Justice, only to attain the age of retirement within a month. Similarly, KN Singh took five years to reach the top, but served for only 17 days.
No woman has ever been the Chief Justice. This is mainly because of the eight women to serve in the Supreme Court so far, only two took oath before their 60th birthday. The average age for a woman to be appointed to the court is 60.3 years, almost two years more than the overall average. So, they have shorter tenures.
Gogoi, like most of his predecessors, will have a relatively short term of a little over 13 months as the Chief Justice. Only 13 chief justices have held the position for over two years or more.
YV Chandrachud, the longest-serving Chief Justice, spent seven years and 139 days in the position from 1978 to 1985, outstripping the second-placed Bhuvaneshwar Prasad Sinha, who served from late 1959 to early 1964, by over three years.
In this century, 17 men have served as the Chief Justice, but only three for over two years. In that time, eight have served for less than a year.
In this decade, the average tenure of the Chief Justice has been 348 days, a little short of a year. Gogoi’s term, which ends in November next year, will be above the decade’s average, but only marginally. His likely successors, Sharad Bobde and NV Ramana, will have short tenures as well. It will take the appointment of young judges to the apex court and some good fortune for India to get the next long-serving Chief Justice.