Fourteen months do not seem like a long time to helm an institution as challenging and complex as the Supreme Court, but the new Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, may well find it the most eventful period of his 40-year-long career. As he would have learned from the experience of his predecessor, a brief tenure does not necessarily mean an uneventful one; if anything, Justice Misra’s legacy will be determined by the exigencies of the judicial calendar that awaits him. Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar’s tenure of 237 days saw him preside over two constitutional Benches that pronounced landmark judgments — one banning the practice of instant triple talaq and the other affirming the right to privacy as a fundamental right. The immediate implications of the second judgment are significant as another petition on the use of Aadhaar is pending before the apex court. This much-anticipated judgment is just one of a series of significant issues on the Supreme Court’s plate before Justice Misra steps down in October 2018. Among the most prominent cases he will be hearing are the Babri Masji dispute, the Cauvery water dispute, the women’s right to enter the Sabarimala temple, and the challenge to Article 35A that gives legal status to Kashmir.
The judicial agenda, however, is only part of Justice Misra’s mandate. Putting the judicial house in order is no less an important responsibility, and the situation here is daunting for even the most committed of justices. Currently, the high courts are working at half their Bench strength and the Supreme Court will be short by six judges. And this is the case only for the upper judiciary. The lower courts, which account for the bulk of the litigation in the country, are short of roughly 5,000 judges, 23 per cent of their Bench strength. The urgency in filling all these vacancies can be gauged from the fact that there are some 30 million pending cases in India, and the district and subordinate courts account for well over two-thirds of these. In that sense, Justice Misra may do well to address the long-standing arguments with the Centre over the executive’s influence in the appointment of high court judges through a collegium — the issue that caused one chief justice to burst into tears in public not so long ago.
The government and the Supreme Court are reportedly considering a new judicial mechanism – courts of appeal – which will hear appeals in all civil and criminal cases after hearings in district courts, the idea being that an alternative mechanism is needed to help clear the backlog of pending cases and free up high courts to hear core constitutional matters only. It is a radical suggestion that Justice Misra will have to look at carefully. He could also benefit from a NITI Aayog report last week that suggested shifting some workload out of the regular court system and introduction of an administrative cadre in the judicial system to reduce the administrative responsibilities of judges so that they can devote more time to hearing cases and writing judgments. The report also said high priority should be given to court process automation and information and communication technology enablement for electronic court and case management.