Short Tenure and Shorter Legacy of Chief Justice of India: An Analysis

GLA University - B.Com | LLB | B.A.
GLA University | B.Com | LLB | B.A.

Do short tenures affects the legacy of Chief Justice of India?  Many suggest that the inconsistent terms of CJIs present a predicament to the functioning of the collegium and the Supreme Court.  While several CJIs had impactful but short tenures, irregular terms for CJIs in office could delay judicial reform. Jaibatruka Mohanta traces the scattered legacy of Chief Justice of India from before Independence and understands the transition that came after.

short legacy of chief justice of india

By Jaibatruka Mohanta, a fourth-year student of B.L.S L.L.B  at VKMs Pravin Gandhi College of Law, University of Mumbai. Jai is also a member of the Lawctopus Writers Club.

Introduction

During the farewell of Former Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, the Attorney General for India KK Venugopal remarked:

the Chief Justice of India should have a minimum tenure of three years so as to ensure that long-standing reforms can be made.

Looking at the legacy of Chief Justice in India over the recent past, his statement affords a genuine enquiry.

India has seen nineteen CJIs in the last two decades. During this time, Justice S. Rajendra Babu served the shortest term as thirty-fourth Chief Justice of India. His office tenure lasted for twenty-nine days,  from May 2, 2004, to May 31, 2004.[1]

Article 124 of the Indian Constitution deals with the ‘establishment and constitution’ of the Supreme Court’. Part of Article 124(2) reads,

“Every Judge of the Supreme Court shall be appointed by the President by warrant under his hand and seal… and shall hold office until he attains the age of sixty-five years.”

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Interestingly, the Constitution is entirely silent on the tenure for the office of the Chief Justice of India. Although, Article 126 talks about the ‘appointment of acting Chief Justice’, there’s no mention of the tenure or procedure for the appointment.

This article will show a consistent pattern of inconsistency in the tenures served by the CJIs. It will track how Indian Supreme Court transitioned during and after the colonial period. The article will also compare the terms of the two CJIs and understand the faultlines. Eventually, detailing the recommendation of the fourteenth Law Commission Report that highlighted the trend of short legacies of CJIs.

Do Terms Affect The Legacy of Chief Justice of India?

It’s essential to look back at the formative years of the Supreme Court before the Independence to answer the enquiry of this article.

Ten years after establishing the Federal Court in 1937, all Chief Justices were Englishmen. From 1937 to 1947, colonial India had only two Chief Justices. The maiden Chief Justice was Sir Maurice Gwyer, who served for five years from 1937 to 1943. Followed by Sir William Patrick Spens, who served as the Chief Justice of India from 1943 to 1947.[2]

Federal Court later became the Supreme Court of India in the year 1950.

As the Constitution of India came into effect on January 26, 1950, Justice Harilal Jekisundas Kania took over as independent India’s first Chief Justice.

After independence, the term served by the Chief Justice of India has been inconsistent. In the past Seventy years, the Supreme Court has seen 47 CJIs. If we continue like this, we may have 20 Chief Justices in the next thirty years.

The sixteenth Chief Justice of India, Yeshwant Vishnu Chandrachud, has had the longest tenure of serving the Chief Justice of India for seven years from February 1978 to July 1985. On the other hand, the twenty-second Chief Justice of India, Kamal Narain Singh, served the shortest tenure that lasted twenty-nine days from November 25, 1991, to December 12, 1991.

While there hasn’t been considerable debate concerning the tenure of the CJI office, some CJIs have commented on this grey area. For instance, India’s fortieth Chief Justice, Palanisamy Gounder Sathasivam, had expressed his concerns two days before demitting office in April 2014. He said,

I will give my own example. I had a tenure (as CJI) of nine months and eight days. There were many things that I wanted to do but couldn’t do due to short tenure. The CJI must have a fixed tenure like some important government functionaries like the home secretary.

Many have contended that short tenures fail to bring in long-term reforms crucial to the legal profession. India’s forty-third CJI, Tirath Singh Thakur, had pressed upon the same in a 2016 conference. He had said:

‘…reforms in other sectors would be meaningless without relieving judges of the monstrous burden of pendency that forces a litigant to spend frustrating years in search of justice.’

One of the reasons many CJIs serve shorter tenure could be because most of the Supreme Court’s judges get appointed in their late fifties.[3] Thus, many judges spend years in the Supreme Court and finally, only a few ascend to the role of the Chief Justice of India with a handful of days to lead the apex court.

The limited number of days that each CJI has in his disposition makes it difficult to address the more significant issues that have been prevalent in the legal system. Moreover, by the time a CJI would have understood the problem, the date of retirement draws closer. The execution thus remains unfulfilled.

Below is a table that compares the tenures of India’s thirtieth Chief Justice, Sam Piroj Bharucha and thirty-fourth Chief Justice, S. Rajendra Babu. Of course, one cannot deny that several other factors may affect the efficiency and decision-making of the apex court. However, the duration of the Chief Justice is an important one to consider.

Justice Sam Piroj BharuchaJustice S. Rajendra Babu
Elevated fromJustice Bharucha got elevated to the Supreme Court from the High Court of Bombay.Justice Babu got elevated to the Supreme Court from the High Court of Karnataka.
TenureServed 185 days as the Chief Justice of India (November 1, 2001, to May 5, 2002)Served 29 days as Chief Justice of India (May 2, 2004, to May 31, 2004)
Major work
  • When CJI Bharucha took over, matters to be heard by five-Judge benches were pending. Issues to be heard by larger benches were also pending, including those filed twenty years back.
  • Thus, Justice Bharucha formed a Constitution Bench immediately to address the matter.
  • He also ensured that a five-judge bench and a larger bench served throughout his term to tackle the pending constitutional issues.
  • He aided the computerisation of cases, which helped in sorting the backlog.
  • During his term, the apex court also interpreted the meaning of  ‘minorities’, ‘religion’ and ‘education’ under an eleven-judge bench.
  • Lastly, in his speeches, he acknowledged that there is corruption in the judiciary.
  • Justice Babu delivered some landmark judgments on constitutional, environmental, corporate and other issues.
  • His most cherished judgement was his interpretation of ‘mob psychology’ in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case.

 

A close perusal of the above table highlights a few critical points.

  • First, there is a sharp contrast in the number of days Justice Bharucha and Justice Babu served as CJIs.
  • Second, both Chief Justices have authored a few landmark judgments. However, Justice Bharucha went on to make some administrative decisions as well and formed a permanent constitutional bench during his tenure. He also effectuated the computerisation of cases for effective redressal of long-pending matters.
  • Third, Justice Bharucha made a few visits to attend conferences and deliver lectures in some parts of the country, engaging with the Bar members.

Probable Causes

Although erratic tenures of CJIs have been scantly addressed, not a lot got done to rectify the same. This is because the appointment process as judges to the apex court is based purely on the collegium system, which has existed for a long time.

One of the significant problems with the collegium system is that it works with the logic of seniority when electing the Chief Justice of India.

Since seniority plays a significant role in determining the Chief Justice of India, some Justices get several months to serve, and a few get only a handful of days. This is a problem because shorter and erratic tenures could hinder judicial reforms, and there’s no hiding that the Indian Judiciary desperately needs reformation.

Article 124(3) provides only four considerations to appoint a Supreme Court judge.

  1. The person should be a citizen of India;
  2. The person should have been a Judge of a High Court or two or more such Courts in succession for at least five years; or
  3. The person should have been an advocate of a High Court or two or more such Courts in succession for at least ten years; or
  4. is, in the opinion of the President, a distinguished jurist.

The criteria that are laid down is quite simple. However, how judges have been appointed to the apex court has had minimum transparency with maximum speculations.

What Does the Law Commission Have To Say? 

In 1958 the 14th Law Commission’s Report had scrutinised the inconsistency in the tenures served by the Chief Justice of India. In addition, it also dealt with the method of appointment of the Chief Justice. It had analysed the core concerns and provided solutions as well. Sadly, the recommendations received a mention only on paper and were never implemented.

Few points from the Law Commission Report that are worth mentioning:

  • It recognised that continuity is essential in the office of the Chief Justice to render quality judicial administration throughout the country.
  • It had suggested that the Chief Justice must tour the country and meet various judicial personnel and Bar members to understand the problems faced by them. Though in reality, by the time the Chief Justice finished the tour, the term in office would be over. Therefore, a tenure of five to seven years was considered essential to discharge the duties adequately.
  • On appointing a judge, the Report acknowledged that ‘succession to an office of this character cannot be regulated by mere seniority’.
  • Further, it also suggested that a person who is a competent administrator and is capable of handling complex matters should occupy the top-most post of a CJI.

The Report had made a note of the American Supreme Court, comparing the Indian and American apex courts’ legacies. It observed that since the inception of the Indian Supreme Court in 1950, India had five Chief Justice of India in a quick succession of eight years. However, the American Supreme Court, which is 160 years old, only had fourteen Chief Justices in all.

In April 2021, Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana took over as forty-eighth Chief Justice of India. During a launch of granting access to virtual proceedings of the apex court to media persons, CJI Ramana remarked that he was ‘actively considering the proposal to live telecast the proceedings of the Supreme Court.’

The thought itself is a step that will benefit the entire legal fraternity. In return, this would bring about more transparency in ensuring timely justice to the litigants.

Endnotes

[1] Chief Justice Judges, The Supreme Court of India, https://main.sci.gov.in/chief-justice-judges

[2] George H. Gadbois Jr. (1964). The Federal Court of India: 1937 – 1950. Journal of the Indian Law Institute, Apr.-Sept., 1964, Vol. 6, No. 2/3 (Apr.- Sept. 1964), pp. 253-315. Retrieved June 19, 2021, from https://ezproxy.svkm.ac.in:2113/stable/pdf/43949806.pdf?ab_segments=0%2FSYC5917%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3Afcaf5e421f4d91c4d521e4e3545a8b9e

[3] Supra

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