On January 12, four Supreme Court Justices - Justice J. Chelameswar, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph - held a press conference to register their differences with the Chief Justice of India in matters related to court administration. Later, a letter they have written to the Chief Justice was made available to the media. One of the key issues raised in the letter revolves around the term ‘master of the roster.’ Here is an explainer about what it means and the context:
What does 'master of the roster' mean?
‘Master of the Roster’ refers to the privilege of the Chief Justice to constitute Benches to hear cases.
This privilege was emphasised in November last year, when a Constitution Bench, led by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, declared that “the Chief Justice is the master of the roster and he alone has the prerogative to constitute the Benches of the Court and allocate cases to the Benches so constituted.”
It further said that “no Judge can take up the matter on this own, unless allocated by the Chief Justice of India, as he is the master of the roster.”
The immediate trigger for this was a direction by a two-judge Bench (led by Justice Chelameswar) that a petition regarding a medical college corruption case, involving an alleged conspiracy to bribe Supreme Court judges, be heard by a Bench fo the five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court.
What is the position of the four judges on the ‘master of the roster’ issue?
They regard it as “one of the well-settled principles” and a convention that is important for an orderly transaction of business. But, they write in the letter, it isn’t a recognition of superior authority of the Chief Justice over his colleagues. Their point is that the Chief Justice is only the "first among equals," a phrase that Chief Justice Misra himself had used in the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms vs. Union of India order.
In their letter, the four judges have also written that there are “well-settled and time honoured conventions guiding the Chief Justice” in the determination of the roster, including those about the strength of the Bench to deal with a particular case. Of late, they write, these rules haven’t been strictly adhered to.
“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justice of this Court selectively to the Benches “of their preferences” without any rational basis for such assignment.”