New Delhi: These are tumultuous times for the Supreme Court (SC). Earlier this year, four judges openly questioned the Chief Justice in an unprecedented rebellion. More recently, the government raised questions about judge representation at the apex court. Yet, amid all this, the Supreme Court has delivered judgements with profound implications for the Indian society.
In India’s common law system, judgements are critical for setting a precedent that serves as the foundation for delivering justice. The Delhi lieutenant governor and Section 377 verdicts will undoubtedly go down in history as landmark judgements and influence several future cases. But what are the most influential cases currently?
To answer this, Mint examined all of the 50,000-plus Supreme Court’s judgements from IndianKanoon.org. We preferred Indian Kanoon to the Supreme Court’s official website because the Supreme Court website has several missing judgements, including notable cases such as the Indra Sawhney vs Union of India judgement delivered in 1992. Indian Kanoon has a more comprehensive database and is widely considered by legal scholars as one of the best resources on India’s legal system. According to Aparna Chandra, professor at the National Law University Delhi, Indian Kanoon is the “first stop for legal researchers".
Our data shows that Supreme Court judgements are a complex web—70% of all judgements have been cited by at least one other judgement. Within this network, the simplest way to assess importance is to look at how many times a judgement has been cited by other Supreme Court judgements.
Using this citation count, India’s most influential judgement is the verdict in Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India. In 1977, the passport of Maneka Gandhi (the current women and child development minister) was impounded by the ruling Janata Party government. In response, she filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s order. While the court did not reverse the government order, the observations in their judgement had far-reaching ramifications. The seven-judge bench asserted the right to personal liberty as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution, making it an important precedent for cases related to fundamental rights. Since then, it has been cited 215 times by other Supreme Court judgements (chart 1).
The judgement was also important because it was part of a significant change in the Supreme Court’s approach to justice. “The Maneka Gandhi case epitomized the shift in legal jurisprudence in the late 1970s, with the Supreme Court taking on a more active role and trying to assert its legitimacy after the Emergency," said Chandra. The Supreme Court came in for strident criticism for failing to defend liberties and constitutional values during the Emergency.
The longest judgement ever delivered by the Supreme Court, Kesavananda Bharati vs state of Kerala, is the third-most cited case (with 155 citations) in the history of the apex court. In a 417,000-word tome, the judgement established the Supreme Court’s authority over the Constitution and prevented Parliament from altering its ‘basic structure’. In her book, 10 Judgements that Changed India, Zia Mody credits this judgement for “protecting the Indian state from collapsing like many of its South Asian counterparts, whether through totalitarian rule, military coups or other extra-constitutional means".
Supreme Court judgements also influence judgements delivered at lower levels of the judiciary. Including citations from lower courts generates a significantly different list (chart 2). On this metric, the most cited judgement is the 2012 judgement in Gian Singh vs state of Punjab (cited 10,067 times). In the event of a settlement, the judgement provides the framework for high courts to decide which proceedings cannot be quashed (such as serious and heinous offences) and which proceedings can be. As a result, it is frequently cited by high courts when settlement issues crop up.
More generally, judgements like this are crucial for lower courts who invoke them when dealing with important procedural issues (such as settlement, bail and FIR registration).
“At high courts and lower courts, the precedent set by the Supreme Court is crucial for dealing with procedural issues. This is why certain judgements, such as Gian Singh, are repeatedly cited," said Akshay Sapra, a lawyer practising at the Delhi high court and partner at Ardent Legal (Advocates & Solicitors).
Beyond influential cases, our analysis also reveal influential personalities. As the Supreme Court is the custodian of the Constitution, we scanned the text of all judgements to see which of the Constitution’s architects are cited the most (chart 3).
Unsurprisingly, B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee, tops the list with 243 mentions, far exceeding the next influencer, constitutional advisor B.N. Rau, with 67 mentions.
Ambedkar’s influence has not waned over time: 26% of his mentions have come in the past four years. Along with India’s political class, India’s highest court seems to be re-discovering the wisdom in Ambedkar’s words.
This is the first of a two-part data journalism series on the Supreme Court. The second part will examine the Supreme Court’s workload and the pending backlog of cases.