The ‘Chief Justice of India’ (CJI) is an individual judge and not the powerful collective of five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court called the ‘Collegium’, the Supreme Court held
And it is this exclusive authority of this individual judge, who is the “spokesperson of the court”, to allocate cases to fellow judges as the ‘Master of Roster’, a Bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan declared in their separate but concurring opinions.
The judgment is based on a petition filed by former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan to have a collegium of Supreme Court judges collectively allocate cases rather than leave the entire power in the hands of the CJI in his administrative capacity as the ‘Master of Roster’.
With this verdict, this is the third time in eight months the Supreme Court has declared its Chief Justice as the ‘Master of Roster’.
Justice Sikri highlighted the moral responsibility the CJI owes to his colleagues and the public at large while flexing his powers as ‘Master of Roster’ to allocate cases.
Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and some of his predecessors were criticised by four of his senior-most judges led by Justice Chelameswar for allocating cases of national importance to select judges.
Both Justices Sikri and Bhushan concurred that neither Article 145 (rules of court) nor the Supreme Court Rules say the ‘Chief Justice of India’ as the Collegium.
Unlike having the Collegium decide the appointment and transfer of judges, a collective deciding which cases should go to which Bench would affect the day-to-day functioning of the court.
SC highlighted that the CJI owes a moral responsibility to his colleagues and the public at large while flexing his powers as ‘Master of Roster’ to allocate cases. “Absolute discretion” cannot be confined to just one man, the CJI.
The court listed some of the qualities a CJI should possess as the Master of Roster, including balance, fortitude, moral courage, and independence of mind. Also, as the court’s spokesperson, it is the CJI’s duty to usher in and administer reform as a continuous process.
What does ‘master of the roster’ mean?
‘Master of the Roster’ refers to the privilege of the Chief Justice to constitute Benches to hear cases.
This privilege was emphasized in November last year, when a Constitution Bench, led by the Chief Justice of India 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.”
It further said that “no Judge can take up the matter on this own unless allocated by the Chief Justice of India, as he is the master of the roster.”
The immediate trigger for this was a direction by a two-judge Bench that a petition regarding a medical college corruption case, involving an alleged conspiracy to bribe Supreme Court judges, be heard by a Bench fo the five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court.
Undoubtedly, the chief justices enjoy a special status and they alone can assign work to a judge sitting alone and to the judges sitting in division bench or full bench. They have the jurisdiction to decide which case will be heard by which bench. If judges were free to choose their jurisdiction or any choice was given to them to do whatever case they may like to hear and decide, the machinery would collapse and the judicial work of the court would cease by the generation of internal strife on account of hankering for a particular jurisdiction or a particular case