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CJI is Master of Roster, Has Sole Authority to Allocate Cases: SC

SC said CJI “occupies role of first among equals and has exclusive duty of allocating cases”.

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Video Editor: Vishal Kumar

Cameraperson: Sravya MG

Dismissing a plea filed by former law minister Shanti Bhushan challenging the existing roster practice of allocation of cases in the apex court by the Chief Justice of India (CJI), the Supreme Court on Friday, 6 July, said that the CJI “occupies role of first among equals and has exclusive duty of allocating cases”.

Refusing to interfere with the PIL, the apex court held that there was no dispute that the CJI alone was master of the roster, and that it did not make sense for the task of allocation of cases to be performed by a collegium of five judges. The bench of Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan also clarified that there was no need for laying down any guidelines for the exercise of the CJI’s powers.

Arguments had concluded in the case on 27 April, and the verdict reserved by the bench.

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The PIL by Shanti Bhushan

In his PIL, Shanti Bhushan had alleged that the CJI’s power as "master of roster" could not be an "unguided and unbridled" discretionary power, exercised arbitrarily by the CJI by hand-picking the benches of select judges or by assigning cases to particular judges.

Senior counsel Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan, who had appeared for Shanti Bhushan, had questioned the manner in which some "sensitive cases" were allocated to particular benches in the court in contravention of the rules.

Dave had referred to constitutional provisions and the Supreme Court Rules and said that there was "ambiguity" in the rules as to whether the CJI possessed the power to frame the roster.

The petitioner had also made it clear that the plea and its prayer was to strengthen the court and was not directed against any individual.

He, therefore, asked the Supreme Court to issue directions on how the power, as master of the roster, would be exercised on the following lines:

  1. That listing of Supreme Court cases be strictly on the basis of the Supreme Court Rules 2013 and the Handbook on Practice and Procedure and Office Procedure
  2. That in interpreting the Rules and Handbook, the powers vested in the CJI should be construed as lying with not just the CJI but a collegium of five senior judges of the Supreme Court.
  3. That the CJI be prevented from listing matters in a different manner from that specified in the Rules and Handbook.

The petition assumes significance in light of the 12 January press conference where four senior-most judges of the top court – Justices J Chelameswar (since retired), Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph – had said the situation in the top court was "not in order" and many "less than desirable" things have taken place.

Objections by Attorney-General

Attorney-General KK Venugopal, requested by the Court to provide his opinion, had strongly opposed the petition, saying that any attempt to delegate the power of allocation of cases to other judges would lead to "chaos".

During the arguments, Venugopal had stressed the need for "unity" among the judges of the top court and said that Bhushan's petition to vest the power to allocate cases to the five-member collegium might lead to "conflict" among judges on who would hear which matter, besides multiplicity of authorities.

"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," the Attorney-General had told the bench.

The judges, who wrote separate but concurring judgments, agreed with these submissions and rejected the contentions of Bhushan. In his judgment, Justice Sikri notes:

“Although Constitution is silent on the role of CJI as the master of roster, it is based on healthy practice to maintain discipline and decorum of the Court.. CJI has authority to allocate cases and need not consult other judges.”

(With inputs from PTI.)

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