- Ex-law minister Shanti Bhushan had challenged system of assigning cases
- He called for panel to decide on rostering of judges, assigning of cases
- In April, top court held Chief Justice alone had power to assign cases
The Chief Justice of India is the "master of the roster" and has the power to assign cases, the Supreme Court ruled today on a petition that called for a panel of judges to take such decisions and echoed concerns raised by four top judges who publicly took on Chief Justice Dipak Misra in January.
"The Chief Justice (CJI) has the role of first among equals and is empowered to exercise leadership in administration of the court which includes assignment of cases," said Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan, confirming the verdict by two previous benches.
"There is no dispute that the Chief Justice is the master of roster and allocates cases to Judges. The constitution is silent on the Chief Justice. Conventions and judgements over the time and accepted by all stake holders that the Chief Justice is first among judges and senior most," said the judges.
A five-judge constitution bench in November and a three-judge bench in April this year have already stated that the Chief Justice is the master of the roster.
Former law minister Shanti Bhushan's petition had said that the "master of the roster" cannot be an "unguided and unbridled" discretionary power, exercised arbitrarily by the Chief Justice by hand-picking the benches of select judges or by assigning cases to particular judges.
Justice Ashok Bhushan said, "There are rich conventions and practices of the Supreme Court that are time-tested and should not be tinkered with."
Justice Sikri said that it would be difficult to accept the petitioner's argument that the term "Chief Justice of India", under the Supreme Court rules, should be read as the collegium comprising five senior-most judges for allocating cases. "The erosion of judiciary in the minds of people is greatest threat to judicial system," he said, adding that CJI, being the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court is the "spokesperson and leader of judiciary".
The government's top lawyer had opposed a panel of judges saying it would result in chaos. "It is essential that there should be one person doing this and if it has to be one person, then it has to be the CJI," Attorney General KK Venugopal had said.
On January 12, the four top ranking judges after the Chief Justice - Justices J Chelameswar (now retired), Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph - had called an unprecedented press conference in which they took on the Chief Justice over the way sensitive cases were being assigned and said the "administration of the Supreme Court was not in order".