On Friday last, four of the senior most judges of the Supreme Court went public questioning the conduct of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra leading to deep institutional crisis. However, this allegation is not simply about the personalities involved. It represents the serious crisis of legitimacy and culmination of the gradual deepening of flaws in the Indian judicial system. They highlight the urgency with which it needs to be addressed.
At the heart of controversy is Chief Justice’s way of allocating cases (Chief Justice decides when a case may be listed for hearing and which judges will hear it) which his colleagues find objectionable. Its implication can be smelled far more serious. First implication is the attempt to fix cases or manipulate the outcome (especially politically sensitive cases). The allegation is serious because of this reason. Other implication is that those judges to whom cases are being assigned may also be in the influence of Chief Justice at least, persuaded for making cases fixed. The issue arises question not just about the integrity of Chief Justice, but also by implication, of their colleagues.
On other hand, surfacing of this issue can also be seen as an opportunity to call for reform to restore public confidence in the highest decision making body. At the same time reform should not come at the cost of its independence. While CJI is the master of roster, it does not mean that allocation of work can be done in arbitrary manner. “Clear rules and norms” must be laid down for allocation and distribution of cases, which are “rational, fair and transparent”. The highest decision making body must take immediate steps to resolve the crisis and bring new mechanism of accountability.
Moreover, from history it is evident that institutions that revolve around single centered individual certainly perish. If we want to restore the dignity and stature to one of the most vital institutions of our democracy, the constructive way is to introduce reform that brings accountability and transparency to the office of Chief Justice, without compromising on judicial independence.