Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, the seniormost judge of the Supreme Court, was sworn in as the 44th Chief Justice of India by President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday.
Justice Khehar will have a tenure for over seven months till August 28, 2017. He assumed office as a judge of the Supreme Court on September 13, 2011.
On his first day at the top of the judicial hierarchy, Justice Khehar presided over courtroom one with Justices N.V. Ramana and D.Y. Chandrachud flanking him.
Justice Khehar is known for his firm and decisive approach to cases. His appointment comes at a time when the relationship between the government and the judiciary remains tense over an unprecedented number of judicial vacancies — 400-odd — in High Courts and eight in the Supreme Court.
Even on his last day at work, Justice T.S. Thakur, the current CJI’s predecessor, had accused the Centre of letting the Supreme Court Collegium’s recommendations of judicial appointments and transfers “languish on somebody’s desk.”
It will be on Chief Justice Khehar’s shoulders now to resolve the differences of opinions about the draft memorandum of procedure (MoP) for judicial appointments and transfers with the government.
Incidentally, it was a Constitution Bench led by Justice Khehar which had pushed into motion the exercise of re-drafting the over two-decades-old MoP in a bid to bring in transparency and accountability into the judicial appointments process.
Justice Khehar, whose name is eponymous with the voluminous majority judgment he authored scrapping the government’s NJAC law to revive the Collegium, has now to contend with dissent inside the Supreme Court Collegium itself.
Justice Jasti Chelameswar, who is the second seniormost judge in the Supreme Court and a member of the Collegium, does not attend Collegium meetings.
As the lone dissenting judge on the Constitution Bench which scrapped the NJAC law, Justice Chelameswar’s principled dissent against opacity within the Collegium was historic. He has refused to attend Collegium meetings until a procedure is evolved to bring in transparency in appointments process.
Chief Justice Khehar faces the challenge of presenting a unified face of the Collegium, consisting of Justices Dipak Misra (who will succeed him as the country’s 45th Chief Justice of India as per seniority convention), Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi (who will succeed Justice Misra) and the new entrant into the Collegium, Justice Madan B. Lokur.
After declaring the NJAC law unconstitutional in October 2015, Justice Khehar’s Bench had unconventionally invited public suggestions to improve the Collegium system. So, there may be a possibility that Chief Justice Khehar and Justice Chelameswar see common ground in their fight for judicial transparency.
Called a “tough judge” by none other than his immediate predecessor, the year 2016 saw Justice Khehar helm a number of sensitive decisions impacting the Executive, including his verdict forcing the government to withdraw President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh in January last year.
In a recent Constitution Day function, Justice Khehar gave an insight into his working style by drawing the line for the government and legislature, cautioning them to follow constitutional norms and not cross the Lakshman Rekha.
Justice Khehar was a member of the Judges Inquiry Committee for investigating the grounds for removal of Justice P.D. Dinakaran, when the latter was Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court.