50th Chief Justice of India Chandrachud’s first month of a two-year tenure has been a test of nerves even as miles loom ahead

The CJI will head successive combinations of the Supreme Court Collegium responsible for recommending 19 judicial appointments to the apex court till his retirement in November 2024

December 04, 2022 05:44 pm | Updated December 05, 2022 11:21 am IST - NEW DELHI

Chief Justice of India (CJI) Justice D.Y Chandrachud. File

Chief Justice of India (CJI) Justice D.Y Chandrachud. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Chief Justice of India D.Y Chandrachud, who is completing his first month as the 50th top judge, will head successive combinations of the Supreme Court Collegium responsible for recommending 19 judicial appointments to the apex court till his retirement on November 11, 2024, well past the next General Elections.

There are already seven judicial vacancies in the top court. Another nine would open up next year. Three more of the current serving judges of the court would retire during the final year of the CJI’s tenure in 2024.

Chief Justice Chandrachud’s 24-month and one-day tenure is the longest for a Chief Justice of India in the past decade, and the longest the present government has seen.

The last CJI who had a tenure of over two years was the 38th Chief Justice of India, Justice S.H. Kapadia, a little over 28 months, between May 12, 2010 and September 28, 2012. His immediate predecessor, the 37th Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan had a longer tenure of 39 months and 28 days. Such comparatively substantial tenures as Chief Justices of India have been few in the recent past of the court. After Chief Justice Balakrishnan, one has to count back till the 29th Chief Justice of India, Justice A.S. Anand, for a tenure which crossed two years between 1998 and 2001. Justice Anand was CJI for 36 months and 21 days. Justice A.M. Ahmadi too served 28.27 months as the 26th CJI.

The year 2023 would see a slow change in the first phase of the Chandrachud Collegium with four of the senior members retiring, starting with Justice S. Abdul Nazeer in January 2023 and ending with the retirement of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, currently the number two judge, in December next year.

Besides the length of Chief Justice Chandrachud’s tenure, which stands him apart from his predecessors starting with the 39th Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, the number and quality of judges the Chandrachud Collegium may recommend could determine the course for constitutional courts in the next decade. The Chandrachud Collegium would initiate 55.88% of future appointments in the 34-strong Supreme Court.

The Chandrachud Collegium is also focusing on filling up the High Courts. It is from the High Courts the judges are largely elevated to the Supreme Court. As on November 1, there were 335 judicial vacancies in the 25 High Courts out of a sanctioned strength of 1,108 judges.

In his maiden month as CJI, Justice Chandrachud has repeatedly highlighted the need for a bolder district judiciary. He is spearheading a drive to a more open justice delivery mechanism through live-streaming proceedings and equipping Right to Information in the Supreme Court. Recent days have seen strong comments emanating from the Supreme Court about the mechanism for appointment of Election Commissioners. Constitution Benches have been set up one after the other and contentious issues like demonetisation, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir are waiting for a decision. The challenge to the constitutionality of the electoral bonds system is listed for hearing on December 6.

With so much ahead, Chief Justice Chandrachud’s tenure has been prodded into a storm brewed by the government over the Collegium system. Law Minister Kiren Rijiju’s public attacks on the “opacity” of the Collegium system and his barbed references to the striking down of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) in 2015 has coincided with Chief Justice Chandrachud taking over on November 9.

On November 28, the Supreme Court had expressed its displeasure at Mr. Rijiju’s remarks to the Attorney General of India in open court. Justice Kaul, who headed the Bench, has said somebody so “high” should not have indulged in such remarks. The court also made it clear that the government has “crossed some Rubicons” by sitting on Collegium recommendations for months on end without a word. It had connected the dots between the NJAC’s failure to pass muster in court and the Minister’s volley. The court has noted the pendency of the Collegium’s September 26 recommendation of Bombay High Court Chief Justice Dipankar Datta to be appointed Supreme Court judge. In October, the Centre bifurcated a Collegium recommendation to transfer Orissa High Court Chief Justice, S. Muralidhar, as Chief Justice of Madras High Court. Justice Kaul has subtly drawn the attention of the government to the court’s power of contempt.

But the same evening saw media reports that the government had returned 20 names recommended by the Collegium for High Court judgeships. A few days later, the criticism of the Supreme Court’s judgment on NJAC went up a notch. This time, somebody as high as Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar, remarked that a law — without specifically naming the NJAC — passed by the Parliament and which was the will of the people, was “undone” by the Supreme Court and “the world does not know of any such instance”. Chief Justice Chandrachud was present on the dais at the function.

The Collegium’s proposals for transferring High Court judges have faced protests from the Bar. Reports of Gujarat High Court judge, Justice Nikhil S. Kariel, led the State High Court Bar to declare an indefinite strike. Justice Kariel’s name was absent from the list of transfers recommended by the Collegium in its resolution published on November 24. The proposed transfer of Andhra Pradesh High Court judges, Justices Battu Devanand and D. Ramesh to Madras High Court and Allahabad High Court, respectively, has also triggered protests. Supreme Court Bar Association president, senior advocate Vikas Singh, has been persistently demanding the representation of apex court lawyers in the zone of consideration for High Court judgeships.

Chief Justice Chandrachud has responded to lawyers by calling for “balance and harmony” during his tenure. He has urged the government and judiciary to work together rather than find fault with each other.

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