A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra on Wednesday dismissed a plea challenging his prerogative to allot cases and decide composition of benches of the apex court.
Holding that the Chief Justice is at the “helm of the institution" and was conferred with authority under the Constitution to take decisions on allotment of cases, justice D.Y. Chandrachud said, “There should not be a ‘presumption of mistrust’ in the discharge of duties by the chief justice".
To this effect, the order authored by justice Chandrachud stated, “The oath of the office demands nothing else."
Reiterating that the Chief Justice was the “master of the roster" and sole authority to decide on allotment of cases, the court held that “in the allocation of cases and the Constitution of benches, the Chief Justice has an exclusive prerogative. As a repository of constitutional trust, the Chief Justice is an institution in himself. The authority is entrusted to the chief justice because such an entrustment of functions is necessary for the efficient transaction of the administrative and judicial work of the court".
The three-judge bench was hearing a plea by lawyer Asok Pande, seeking a regularized and transparent procedure for allotment of cases that are brought to the top court to different benches.
The petition also sought Constitution benches comprising the five senior-most judges—Chief Justice Dipak Misra and justices J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur, Kurian Joseph—or a combination of the three senior-most and two junior-most judges. Similarly, it asked for a three-judge bench to include the chief justice and two senior-most judges.
This request was rejected for lacking constitutional basis and the fact that it would “intrude into the exclusive duty and authority of the chief justice" to constitute benches and allocate cases.
A similar challenge to the allegedly unbridled and exclusive powers of the chief justice brought by advocate and former law minister Shanti Bhushan and lawyer/social activist Prashant Bhushan is pending before the top court.
This is not the first time that the apex court has upheld the powers of the chief justice to decide what case is put before which judge.
In November 2017, a Constitution bench headed by Misra asserted that as Chief Justice, he was the master of the roster and it was his prerogative to assign cases to benches of the apex court.
The verdict assumes significance as it comes in the backdrop of the 12 January press conference of senior judges who raised the issue of improper allocation of cases.
To be sure, a new system for allocation of cases was put in place by chief justice Misra. Under the new roster system, effective 5 February, cases were to be allocated based on the subject matter they entail.
The chief justice would, however, still be vested with a big chunk of important matters including all special leave petitions, and matters related to public interest, social justice, elections, arbitration, and criminal matters.