Since it is apparent that in the top echelons of the judiciary ”seniority” counts for as much as in the military, there is need for clear articulation of the basis on which that principle is established and operates.
The Supreme Court has been embroiled in enough controversy to afford another murky spat like the one over the order in which newly-elevated members Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran and KM Joseph took their oaths ~ which were administered by the CJI in accordance with the appointment order issued by the government.
Technically that order ”stands”, and though the government insists that it went strictly in accordance with past practice, the rumblings persist. So too persist the suspicions of the government’s animosity towards Justice KM Joseph for reasons too despicable to recall.
What must disturb is lack of a common approach by their Lordships, a united expression of dissent might have pressured the government into rectifying the appointment order: that only a few judges raised the issue with the Chief Justice points to a lack of unanimity on what seniority is based on.
And obviously Justices Banerjee and Saran did not feel uncomfortable with being placed above KM Joseph in the oath-taking pecking-order.
Any suggestion that a visible protest would run counter to the court’s traditions stand demolished when the press conference by some senior judges to”press their case” over the CJI being the”master” of the rolls is recalled.
So what is the basis of seniority: is it the date of appointment to a High Court as the government contends, the date of appointment as Chief Justice of a High Court, the date on which the Supreme Court collegium recommended a name for elevation to its ranks, or the order in which the oath of office was administered?
The court will have to furnish a categorical answer to those complex queries to avert any repetition of the unpleasant controversy: the contention that none of the trio will be in the running for the CJI’s slot is disingenuous evasion of a key issue.
Given the not-infrequent stand-offs between the government and the court (let’s not re-open the NJAC matter at this juncture) the potential for such heartburn is very real, unity among their Lordships could be critical to avert encroachment on their authority.
And does not the date of an initial appointment not militate against competence? Surely merit figures somewhere in the equation? On the rolls issue, how come some Judges handle cases which have high public priority/publicity while others languish in the background? It is more than a trifle embarrassing to comment on matters which in a previous era would have been deemed just not done.
Alas, though the people still retain their faith in the judiciary, deem it the last bulwark against a politicised executive and pathetic legislature, their Lordships need to consistently strive to preserve their prestige and honour.