Once again, Supreme Court upholds Chief Justice of India as 'Master of Roster'

A view of the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. File   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

The 'Chief Justice of India' (CJI) is an individual judge and not the powerful collective of five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court called the 'Collegium', the Supreme Court held on Friday.

And it is this exclusive authority of this individual judge, who is the "spokesperson of the court", to allocate cases to fellow judges as the 'Master of Roster', a Bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan declared in their separate but concurring opinions.

The judgment is based on a petition filed by former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan to have a collegium of Supreme Court judges collectively allocate cases rather than leave the entire power in the hands of the CJI in his administrative capacity as the 'Master of Roster'.


With this verdict, this is the third time in eight months the Supreme Court has declared its Chief Justice as the 'Master of Roster'.

In fact, Justice Sikri, who recently joined the Collegium after the retirement of Justice Chelameswar on June 22, quoted Edmund Burke in his opinion: "Applaud us when we run; Console us when we fall; Cheer us when we recover; but let us pass on - for God's sake, let us pass on."

He wrote that the Supreme Court shall remain greater than the men and women who temporarily occupy it as judges.

The moral responsibility of CJI

Justice Sikri highlighted the moral responsibility the CJI owes to his colleagues and the public at large while flexing his powers as 'Master of Roster' to allocate cases.

Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and some of his predecessors were criticised by four of his senior-most judges led by Justice Chelameswar for allocating cases of national importance to select judges.

Justice Sikri's opinion listed some of the qualities a CJI should possess as the Master of Roster, including balance, fortitude, moral courage and independence of mind. As the court's spokesperson, it is the CJI's duty to usher in and adminsiter reform as a continuous process.

"Erosion of credibility of judiciary is the greatest threat... what is required of judges is changing... judges walk the tight rope of independence," Justice Sikri sent a message across to his brethren.

CJI is not the Collegium

Both Justices Sikri and Bhushan concurred that neither Article 145 (rules of court) and the Supreme Court Rules say the 'Chief Justice of India' as the Collegium.

Unlike having the Collegium decide the appointment and transfer of judges, a collective deciding which cases should go to which Bench would affect the day-to-day functioning of the court.

Justice Sikri said the role of the CJI as the Master of Roster was qualified by the consensus from other judges. The CJI took into consideration the expertise, capacity and interest of his fellow judges while allocating cases to them. This duty should be left to his wisdom.

Likewise, the court rejected Mr. Bhushan's proposal that the CJI should only sit with two of his senior most judges and the Constitution Bench should be either a combination of the five senior most judges or three senior most judges, including him, and two junior most judges. The court said all this should be left to the CJI to decide on.

The CJI is the "ultimate authority to distribute judicial work".

CJI only first among equals

Justice Sikri said though the Constitution is silent on the exact role of the CJI, precedents, healthy practices and conventions  - engrafted in the Supreme Court Rules - have moulded the powers and duties of the office.

Justice Sikri wrote that the CJI is only 'first among equals' in his judicial functions on the Bench. The opinion of the CJI on the Bench carries the same weight as any other member of the Bench. This way, the CJI may hold the minority view in a case while the majority opinion on the Bench becomes the law.

Mr. Shanti Bhushan had argued that the authority of the CJI as the 'Master of Roster' to allocate cases to Benches should not be reduced to an "absolute, singular and arbitrary power".

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, who was asked to assist the court, had argued that having a collegium of the five senior most judges to allocate cases among all judges in the court would only invite chaos.

Unlike the Collegium to recommend new judges, a collegium to allocate cases would mean judges deciding for themselves which cases they should hear. Better have the CJI decide for all as the Master of Roster, Mr. Venugopal had opined in his submissions to the Bench.

The Bench heard the petition despite two separate judgments by the Supreme Court in November 2017 and April this year upholding the CJI 's complete administrative authority to allocate cases and constitute Benches.

Both these judgments were pronounced by Benches led by CJI Dipak Misra. The April verdict had called the CJI an "institution in himself".

In his petition, Mr. Bhushan said such "absolute discretion" cannot be confined in just one man, the CJI.

Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, for Mr. Bhushan, had referred to the Judges case of 1998 to argue that the Supreme Court itself had interpreted the term 'Chief Justice of India' to collectively mean the CJI and his four senior most judges.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 6:31:24 PM |

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