With little more than two months till retirement on November 8, the 49th Chief Justice of India, Justice Uday Umesh Lalit, is looking at a tenure that is set to be a race against time. Especially given the holiday-heavy court schedule this time of the year.
While September is a full working month, the court is scheduled to work for only 14 days in October. However, if the CJI wills it and other judges co-operate, cases can be heard through the Dussehra and Diwali vacations. Chief Justice Khehar (as he was then) heard the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) case through the summer vacations of the court in 2015.
Certain statements made by Chief Justice Lalit has suggested that he intends to meet head-on the challenges confronting the Supreme Court.
The last time a Constitution Bench had assembled was between March and May 2021 in the Maratha reservation case. Former Chief Justice Ramana’s tenure did not see a single Constitution Bench being formed.
Chief Justice Lalit has further promised that at least one Constitution Bench will function throughout the year.
The top judge has also assured transparency in listing of cases so that lawyers are not kept in dark about the fate of their cases. He has promised lawyers that they would be given every opportunity to directly approach the Bench concerned to seek early hearing in cases seeking urgent relief, for example bail pleas.
The CJI has already begun to address the alarming pendency of over 71,000 cases in the apex court by creating more Benches. He will soon have 15 Benches of two-judge combinations functioning from Tuesday to Thursday every week.
“I want all the 15 Benches functioning,” Chief Justice Lalit said.
However, it is to be seen whether he will use his short tenure to make any judicial appointments to the top court. A relatively short tenure of six months as the 41st Chief Justice of India did not stop Justice R.M. Lodha from successfully initiating the appointment of two senior advocates directly to the Supreme Court Bench, one of them being Justice Lalit himself.
However, Chief Justice Lalit may also leave it to Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who would be his successor as per the seniority norm and has a tenure of 24.5 months, to make appointments.
There are currently 30 Judges in the Supreme Court, four less than the total sanctioned strength of 34.
Justice Lalit’s case brings to the fore the debate on having a fixed tenure for Chief Justices of India. This would help them plan and put into action reforms. In fact, as of now, Justice Chandrachud would have the longest tenure among the next six Chief Justices of India. Justice B.V. Nagarathna, who is in line to be India’s first woman Chief Justice, would have a tenure of only a little over a month as top judge.
Chief Justice Lalit, when asked by The Hindu in a recent interview about extending the retirement age of judges from 65 years to 67 years, and fixity of tenure, said it was a matter of policy for the lawmakers to decide.