The Supreme Court on July 5, 2018 ruled that the Chief Justice of India is the ‘Master of Roster’ who has the authority to decide on allocation of cases.
The ruling was given by a bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud.
The Bench heard the petition despite two separate judgments by the Supreme Court in November 2017 and April 2018, upholding the CJI’s complete administrative authority to allocate cases and constitute Benches. Both these judgments were pronounced by Benches led by CJI Dipak Misra.
What does ‘Master of Roster’ mean?
‘Master of Roster’ refers to the privilege of the Chief Justice of India to constitute and allocate the benches to hear cases. The CJI has absolute discretion in the matter of distribution of judicial work among the judges of his court.
This privilege was emphasised in November 2017, when a Constitution Bench led by the Chief Justice Dipak Misra, declared that “the Chief Justice is the master of the roster and he alone has the prerogative to constitute the Benches of the Court and allocate cases to the Benches so constituted.”
• The 'Chief Justice of India' is an individual judge and not the powerful collective of five senior-most judges (Collegium) of the Supreme Court.
• It is the exclusive authority of the CJI to allocate cases to fellow judges as the 'Master of Roster'.
• The bench ruled that “In the allocation of cases and the constitution of benches, the Chief Justice has an exclusive prerogative. As a repository of constitutional trust, the Chief Justice is an institution in himself."
• CJI is only 'first among equals' in his judicial functions on the Bench. The opinion of the CJI on the Bench carries the same weight as any other member of the Bench.
• The bench said the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, had been notified with the President's approval and they alone would be the guiding light for the court on allocation of cases and benches.
• The bench also noted that the relief which the petitioner seeks is misconceived. The petitioner does not have the right to seek a direction that benches should be constituted in a particular manner or there should be separate divisions of this court.
• There is no constitutional foundation on the basis of which such a suggestion can be accepted.
• Interference in the CJI's authority as the master of the roster would pose interrupt the duty and authority of the Chief Justice to constitute benches and to allocate cases to them.
• Every judge appointed to the top court under Article 124 of the Constitution is invested with the equal duty of adjudicating cases assigned by the Chief Justice.
This ruling virtually sets aside the controversy raised by four of senior-most judges Justices J Chelameswar (since retd), Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph.
At an unprecedented media conference on January 12, 2018, the four judges had complained about the selective allocation of cases to preferred benches by the CJI. They had also claimed that the "senior-most judges" were ignored when cases were allocated.
Ruling came on a plea seeking direction for separate division of court
• A bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud gave the ruling while dismissing a plea filed by Constitutional expert and senior advocate Shanti Bhushan.
• Bhushan has filed a petition pleading to have a collegium of Supreme Court judges collectively allocating cases rather than leaving the entire power in the hands of the CJI in his administrative capacity as the 'Master of Roster'.
Earlier, an Allahabad-based lawyer Asok Pande had filed a petition claiming that the Chief Justice was a "repository of constitutional trust" and there couldn't be a "presumption of mistrust".
In Asok Pande’s case, the CJI-led bench declared that the ‘CJI was an institution in himself’.
Medical college bribery case
Shanthi Bhushan also contended that conferring absolute authority on the CJI to allocate cases was unconstitutional and was against democratic principles.
He referred to several recent allocations where this power of CJI was abused with legal malice such as listing of CJAR petition seeking investigation in medical college bribery case, petition questioning the appointment of CBI Special Director, petition of Jay Amit Shah against ‘The Wire’, etc.
The CJAR petition raised bribery allegations against the medical college bribery case that was considered by the bench headed by the CJI. So the matter was mentioned before the bench headed by the then next senior judge Justice Chelameswar.
The bench of Justice Chelameswar ordered the listing of matter before a bench of five senior judges, excluding the CJI, as allegations concerned the CJI. This order was set aside on the very next day itself by a constitution bench headed by CJI, declaring that the Chief Justice is the master of the roster.
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