Justice Ranjan Gogoi was sworn in as the 46th chief justice of India on Wednesday, bringing to an end the controversial tenure of his predecessor Dipak Misra.
In January, Gogoi was one of four senior judges who openly revolted against Misra by addressing an unprecedented press conference. The four judges took exception to important cases being assigned to particular benches by Misra, using his powers as the master of the roster.
This forced Misra to devise a portfolio-based case assignment system in February, under which he kept to himself crucial areas such as public interest litigations. Rather than sorting through PIL petitions by subject and placing them before the bench with the portfolio dealing with that area, Misra allotted all the pleas to the bench he presided over.
On Wednesday, Justice Gogoi put out a new roster. Again, the bulk of the PILs will remain with the chief justice, with some assigned to be heard by the Justice Madan B Lokur, the second senior-most judge now.
On his first day at work, Justice Gogoi made it clear that he would not allow lawyers to mention before him usual matters for urgent hearing. Only if someone was getting “killed, hanged or evicted” would he consider a matter out of turn, he said. However, to make sure that that process of mentioning would be irrelevant in most circumstances, Gogoi he said he would establish a system to shorten the time between when a case is filed and when it comes up for hearing.
While Justice Gogoi’s decision to focus on the vast backlog of cases and filling judicial vacancies is a welcome one, there are functional changes that are urgently needed at the top in the Supreme Court. The press conference that Gogoi addressed in January could provide a roadmap.
Initiatives must be taken to make the Supreme Court less opaque on the administrative side. This should start with the functioning of the chief justice, including the manner in which the roster is made. We still do not know if the roster is made after extensive discussions with other judges or if the chief justice does it on his own. Given that assigning cases to benches under Misra became controversial, making this process as open as possible is the only way Justice Gogoi can address the matters he raised along in January. The roster is now seen as closely connected to institutional independence itself.
Another controversial area under Misra was the manner in which judges are appointed. While the collegium of the Supreme Court’s five most senior judges now puts out its resolutions online, there is still not much insight into how the discussions take place in this forum. If controversy is to be avoided, it is time citizens get to know what is being discussed inside the collegium.
It is also important to understand that the office of the chief justice is an institution that will continue even after retirement of the person who occupies it. Therefore, any decision that profoundly impacts the functioning of the court should be taken with deliberation and not pushed through by using the authority of the office. “I have a plan” was how Justice Gogoi chose to put it when he referred to the enormous backlog of cases. What is need is for the “I” to shift to “we”.