Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, by constituting a five-judge Constitution Bench to hear the Ayodhya appeals, has re-affirmed the Chief Justice of India’s role as the unchallenged ‘master of roster’ of the Supreme Court.
Usually, Constitution Benches are constituted to answer substantial questions of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution or in case of a reference from the President. Constitution Benches are also formed in the Supreme Court on judicial reference from smaller Benches of the court.
However, the Ayodhya appeals are basically appeals arising out of title suits. Besides, a September 27 judgment in the Ayodhya case had directed the further hearing of the appeals by a three-judge Bench and not by a larger Bench.
Chief Justice Gogoi termed the questions as “speculations”. In a judicial order explaining his recent administrative decision to constitute a five-judge Bench to hear the Ayodhya appeals, Chief Justice Gogoi observed that it was always open for the CJI to constitute Benches of such strength he deems proper.
Thus, by giving judicial endorsement to his administrative order, Chief Justice Gogoi has taken after his immediate predecessor, Justice Dipak Misra.
On November 10, 2017, it was a five-judge Constitution Bench led by Justice Misra (then the CJI) which first declared the Chief Justice of India as “the master of the roster who alone has the prerogative to constitute the Benches of the Court and allocate cases”. The Misra Bench had concluded that CJI’s role as the master of roster was necessary to avert chaos in the administration of justice in the Supreme Court.
Incidentally, Chief Justice Gogoi was one of the four judges who subsequently held the January 12, 2018 press conference against the selective allocation of important cases to certain Benches.
On Thursday, Chief Justice Gogoi justified his administrative order to form a Constitution Bench by referring to Order VI, Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules of 2013. This provision provides that cases in the apex court should be heard by a Bench of minimum two judges. That means it is completely left to the discretion of the CJI to decide the numerical size of a Bench.
The wide discretion of the CJI again is found in the ‘Practice and Procedure’ rule book followed by the Supreme Court.
Here again, under the head ‘Constitution Bench’, it is found that “The Chief Justice may, from time to time, constitute a Bench consisting of five or more Judges for the purpose of hearing any other cause, appeal or matter”.