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GS-II : Governance

Master and the roster-Judicial Reforms

  • 02 March, 2021

  • 5 Min Read

Master and the roster-Judicial Reforms

Introduction

  • This article talks about the misuse of the exclusive power of CJI as a Master of the Roster and the need for judicial reforms.

Singular power (Against the Principles of Natural Justice)

  • Singular Power: This is the singular power of the CJI as the Master of the Roster – i.e., the vesting of exclusive discretion in the Chief Justice to constitute benches and allocate cases.
    • In fact, this power lay at the heart of the controversy surrounding the proceedings the Court has now closed.
    • It enabled Justice Gogoi to institute suo motu proceedings despite being an accused; label the case as a matter of judicial independence; and preside over it.
  • Judicial independence: It makes the CJI the sole point of defence of the Court against executive interference.
  • SC can become a pliant court: However, this has a flip side. With the CJI as the sole Master of the Roster, any executive seeking to influence the Supreme Court needs only a pliant CJI.
    • In other words, a pliant Master of the Roster carries the danger of producing a pliant Court.

B.R. Ambedkar’s view on Master of the Roster

  • However, B.R. Ambedkar had forewarned the Constituent Assembly: “…after all, the Chief Justice is a man with all the failings, all the sentiments and all the prejudices which we as common people have”. Yet, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to dilute this power.

Important Supreme court cases

  • In Asok Pande v. Supreme Court of India (2018), a three-judge bench of the Court held that Master of the Roster is the CJI’s exclusive power.
  • A two-judge bench in Shanti Bhushan v. Supreme Court of India (2018) rejected the plea that the Master of the Roster should be interpreted as the collegium.

Need for Judicial reforms

  • Reforms in the Indian judiciary have been a continuing project, mostly responding to crises of the time. Hence, when Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister ordered punitive transfers of High Court judges and superseded judges to appoint the CJI, the Supreme Court formulated the collegium system in response.
  • However, this system has failed to keep executive interferences at bay from the Supreme Court. This is for two reasons:
    • Post-retirement jobs: first, as Justice Gogoi’s case shows, there is an attractive lure of post-retirement jobs; and
    • Unchecked Power: second, as the privilege of Master of the Roster shows, the CJI’s allocation of cases is an unchecked power.
  • The continuing project of judicial reforms should then address these two issues.

Way ahead

  • A cooling-off period between retirement and a post-retirement appointment has often been suggested as a way to deal with the first problem.
  • To check the unchecked power of CJI: The power of Master of the Roster needs to be diversified beyond the CJI’s exclusive and untrammelled discretion.
    • Whether these should vest with a larger cohort of serving judges is an issue that invites public debate and introspection within the institution of the Supreme Court.

 

Source: TH

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