New Delhi: In a sudden hearing on Friday, five judges of the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice of India said that he alone has the power to call a constitution bench because he is "master of the roster". In doing so, they cancelled an order passed on Thursday by the second-most senior judge of the top court, Justice J Chelameswar, who had already called for five judges to start hearing a case on Monday that alleges bribes were paid to senior judges.
- Chief Justice alone can decide constitution bench, says Supreme Court
- Chief Justice sets up 5-judge bench to hear case alleging bribes to judge
- Some lawyers had asked Chief Justice to recuse himself from the case
The decision has triggered a volatile debate because Chief Justice Dipak Mishra has been asked by some petitioners to recuse himself from the case because he was involved in earlier hearings on the same case including as recently as last month.
This is what the case is about. In September, the CBI arrested a former judge from the Orissa High Court, IM Quddusi, along with five others. The investigating agency said the group had colluded to bribe judges.
Justice Quddusi had, according to the CBI, offered to ensure that the Supreme Court would rule in favour of a medical college in Lucknow that was seeking to reverse its blacklisting by the government. He was granted bail just days after his arrest.
The five-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice on Friday observed that he alone can call a constitution bench because that is "the principle of law, judicial discipline and decorum of court." The Chief Justice had made a similar point earlier this month.
The arguments in court turned volatile amid allegations by some including lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan that the transparency and fairness of the judiciary is being heavily compromised. The Chief Justice said Mr Bhushan was making "wild allegations" against him, according to the Press Trust of India.
After being escorted out of the court-room by security, Mr Bhushan tweeted on Friday, "The CJI presided over a hand-picked bench to override yesterday's order referring this case to top 5 judges. This despite having a direct conflict of interest."
It is up to judges to decide whether to opt out of cases they are assigned to or may have links to.
A section of lawyers including the Supreme Court Bar Association supported the Chief Justice, bringing them into conflict with others who said the transparency and fairness of the judiciary is being heavily compromised. Gaurav Bhatia of the top court's bar association said that the Chief Justice's "administrative powers" stand subverted if he is not involved in deciding a constitution bench. He also said that the allegations made by some lawyers against the Chief Justice should be treated as contempt of court.
The Chief Justice refused to ban the press from reporting the case, stating "I believe in freedom of speech, expression."