Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia retires on Friday after a tenure of over eight years and nine months as a Supreme Court judge, during which he ruled on several important issues such as the right to education, retrospective tax and the Bellary mines case.
With Justice Kapadia at the helm since May 2010, the Supreme Court took the government to task for the excesses of the bureaucracy and for corruption in high places. In particular, the 2G judgment which quashed 122 telecom licences and instituted court monitoring of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s probe caused major embarrassment to the ruling dispensation.
Known for his simplicity and honesty, Justice Kapadia conducted court proceedings in exemplary fashion. Soon after he assumed office as the CJI, he put an end to the practice of lawyers directly mentioning a case before any bench for urgent relief. He reflected the modern face of the office through his expertise in corporate law.
But his tenure will be remembered most for the landmark judgments he delivered, right to the last.
•In March 2011, a three-member bench headed by Justice Kapadia dealt a severe blow to the government by quashing the appointment of Chief Vigilance Commissioner P.V. Thomas.
•In the Vodafone case, he held that the Income Tax Department did not have the jurisdiction to levy Rs. 11,000 crore as tax on an overseas deal between Vodafone International Holdings and Hutchison Group.
•In the right to education case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 which provides for free and compulsory education to children between the age of 6 and 14 years and mandates government/aided/ and non-minority unaided schools to reserve 25 per cent of the seats for these children.
•In the M. Nagaraj v. Union of India case, speaking for a five-judge Constitution Bench, Justice Kapadia held that the “creamy layer” among the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes must be excluded from the purview of reservation in public employment and promotions. The same judgment said the state could introduce reservation in promotions by collecting quantifiable data showing backwardness of the class and inadequacy of representation of that class in public employment.
•Under him, the court ordered the inter-linking of rivers and directed the Centre to take up the project on a war-footing.
•Holding that the right to life includes a pollution-free environment, the court ordered the suspension of all mining operations and transport of minerals in Bellary and other districts.
•The court also ordered a CBI probe into illegal mining in the border areas of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, covering the alleged illegal mining activities of the former Karnataka Minister, G. Janardhana Reddy.
•In the media guidelines case, a bench headed by him said there can be no blanket guidelines to regulate media reporting of sub-judice matters but restrictions could be sought in specific cases.
In 2011, the Supreme Court disposed of over 79,000 cases. Justice Kapadia rejected the allegation made in certain quarters about the huge pendency of cases and said: “There is a backlog of cases. However, it is not as big as is sought to be projected.” Seventy-four per cent of the cases were less than five years old, he said. He put in place a plan for expeditious disposal of the pending cases.
Tough and reticent, Justice Kapadia was a favourite with court staff. He ordered a clean-up of the Supreme Court building when he realised its mouldy atmosphere was creating health problems for the staff.
In his two-and-a-half years as CJI, Justice Kapadia consciously avoided interviews and social interactions. He never met the press even once. The Bar complained that the CJI was inaccessible to them. The Advocates on Record Association made its displeasure known by deciding not to host a dinner for him on the eve of his retirement, a departure from convention that raised quite a few eyebrows. A section of lawyers are also unhappy that he did not promote the talent available at the Bar as judges to High Courts or as designated senior advocates.
Justice Altamas Kabir, who takes over as Chief Justice on September 29, has big shoes to fill.