Thursday, October 01, 2009

Puisne Matters

A quick glance across the web page profiling former judges of the Supreme Court of India left me startled. The list of judges begins with (the famous) Justice Khanna, appointed in 1971, leaving all other judges appointed before him out. Names such as Fazl Ali, Vivian Bose, and indeed the “superceded” Shelat, Hegde and Grover, remain conspicuously absent from the list. Apparently, the desultory law student and deferential lawyer must look elsewhere for the academic or professional paths undertaken by some of the country’s finest former judges.

On the other hand, the list of former Chief Justices of India, from Kania to Sabharwal, seems to be complete; which leads me to my question:does this say something about our shared understanding of the judiciary in India? Chief Justices are administrative (but not judicial) superiors - but their position is still one of significant prominence in comparison to other justices. They enjoy considerable powers in the assignment of judicial work (each judge's assignment is determined by the Chief Justice). Law students often observe that the Chief Justice's courtrooms and chambers are 'grander' than the rest in the Supreme Court. Court staff often preface the words "Chief Justice" with the word "Honourable" while referring to him (I say "him" since the Supreme Court has not yet had a female Chief Justice, and the High Courts have had very few), while puisne judges don't necessarily get the same treatment. Here's a question: how many times has the Chief Justice of India been in dissent in the recent past? Without venturing into questions of controversy, it would be instructive to ask: does the Chief Justice of a court, whose office is arguably more visible than others', rightly speak for the entire judiciary?
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