Retired Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi (right) interacts with his successor Sharad Arvind Bobde. Since the inception of SC, the average CJI’s tenure has been 18 months; but in recent years, this figure has fallen. (Photo: ANI)
Retired Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi (right) interacts with his successor Sharad Arvind Bobde. Since the inception of SC, the average CJI’s tenure has been 18 months; but in recent years, this figure has fallen. (Photo: ANI)

What the numbers say about CJIs

As their average tenure decreases, the chief justices, who are mandated to retire at 65, are rushing to deliver verdicts that could define their legacy

New Delhi: From verdicts on Ayodhya to Sabarimala, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi signed off as the Supreme Court’s leader with a flurry of landmark judgements last week. These judgements will have important implications for India - but they also reveal a pattern in how the Supreme Court functions. As CJIs approach the end of their tenure there is a spurt of legacy-defining activity in the Supreme Court. CJIs are mandated to retire at 65.

In his last week before retiring, Gogoi either authored or was part of the bench on six judgements. This was more than the number of judgements he helped deliver in his first three months in office. Since he was appointed as CJI in October 2018, Gogoi took part in shaping 90 verdicts, according to data sourced from Manupatra, a private legal research company.

Not only did Gogoi deliver a spate of judgements before leaving, but he also saved the most important verdicts for his last. All of this month’s judgements—from the expansion of the ambit of the Right to Information Act to the Ayodhya decision—will have profound implications for not just law but Indian society as well. Some legal scholars have criticized the verdicts and the manner in which the justices led by Gogoi arrived at their judgements.

Gogoi’s judgements may have defied tradition. Yet, ending with a flurry of judgements in his last days in office was in keeping with tradition. Gogoi’s predecessor CJI Dipak Misra was even more active in the month leading up to his retirement.

Of the 273 judgements delivered by Dipak Misra between August 2017 and October 2018, 40 judgements came in his last 30 days, including the historic verdict on Section 377 decriminalizing homosexuality.

Tenure of last 10 Chief justices of India.
Tenure of last 10 Chief justices of India.

One reason for this final rush could be the short tenures of CJIs. Becoming the CJI requires being the senior-most judge in the Supreme Court which can take time. Given the mandatory retirement age of 65, this can often result in short tenures. Since the apex court’s inception, the average CJI’s tenure has been 18 months but in recent years this figure has fallen. Of the last 8 CJIs, the longest tenure was 14 months. Gogoi was CJI for only 13 months. The new CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde, is scheduled to retire on 23 April 2021 which will give him 17 months as the SC’s leader.

Most apex court cases are disposed of without judgements. But successive CJI’s have struggled to raise the rate at which cases are disposed of, or to bring down pendency rates. According to the latest available data from the Supreme Court, nearly 60,000 cases remain pending at the apex court. The sanctioned strength of number of judges has increased to 34 (from 31) and with 33 sitting judges currently, the Supreme Court has never been larger. But addressing the backlog challenge will require more than greater judicial staff strength and deeper legal reforms as these pages have pointed out earlier. The 229th Law Commission, for instance, had recommended the establishment of regional Supreme Court benches to hear the many appeals that originate from India’s various high courts.

Where do chief justices end up after retirement? Several take up quasi-governmental or tribunal posts. Following his retirement, P. Sathasivam, who served as the CJI between 2013 and 2014, became the governor of Kerala (from 2014 to 2019). CJI H.L. Dattu, who was in office from 2014 to 2015, is now chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

According to one study by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a legal researcher, around 70% of all apex court judges who had retired in the two years before 2016 ended up in a government-appointed role.

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