Law

16 Judgments in Five Days: It's a Busy Week at the Supreme Court

Looking at the 16 judgments benches presided by CJI Dipak Misra are delivering in the week leading up to his retirement.

The words, “please try to understand” will reverberate in Court No.1 in the Supreme Court for one last week from Monday, as the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, retires on October 2. The words, repeated quite often by the CJI during hearings  in his court, suggest his innate persuasive skills, aimed at trying to get lawyers to see reason.

The bench presided over by him has been rising early for the past few days to find more time for giving finishing touches to the judgments still pending. And there are as many as 16 cases in which judgments are expected to be delivered by benches headed by him from Tuesday. A glimpse into the cases shows that many of them are of profound significance for the future of the country.

The landmarks

1. Petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar and its enabling 2016 law

The constitution bench, presided by the CJI, reserved its verdict in the case on May 10, after hearing arguments for 38 days, the second longest oral hearing after the Keshavananda Bharti case in 1973. The bench could have completed the hearing much earlier, had the CJI not decided to restrict hearings to just three hours every day in order to find time for hearing miscellaneous and other regular cases by small benches, which according to him, were equally important.

It is a difficult case indeed, as the bench has to balance its previous nine-judge bench judgment upholding the right to privacy, with the claims of the Centre, that the collection of biometric and demographic data is required in the larger public interest, and the concerns over privacy could be taken care of by a robust data protection law, being contemplated. Whether the court would strike a middle ground, especially because it is a fait accompli, is to be seen.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, but placed strict restrictions on the scope of the project while striking down contentious provisions of the Aadhaar Act, including clauses that allowed sharing of data for national security purposes and the usage of the biometric authentication system by private corporations.

2. Petitions seeking quashing of the rule restricting the entry of women, of menstruating age, to the Sabarimala temple for worship

If the hearing of the case is any indication, it is likely that the court could read down the rule, to end discrimination against women, although it is to be seen how the court does so, keeping in view the religious sentiments in favour of the restriction. The constitution bench reserved its judgment in the case on August 1.

UPDATE: On Friday, the Supreme Court allowed the entry of women into Sabarimala temple in a 4:1 verdict.
The court ruled that not allowing women in their “menstruating years” into the temple is ultra vires the constitution, and all women should be allowed to enter the temple.

3. Challenge to Section 497 Indian Penal Code on adultery

It is almost certain that the constitution bench will strike down Section 497 of the IPC as unconstitutional, and decriminalise adultery. The bench, which reserved its judgment on August 8, has expressed its disagreement with the Centre that adultery must continue to be criminalised, in the interest of the institution of marriage.

UPDATE: A five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Misra on Thursday unanimously ruled that Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional, and struck it down. The part of Section 198 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which deals with adultery was also declared unconstitutional.

4. Reservation in promotions

The constitution bench is expected to decide whether the 2006 judgment in the M. Nagaraj case needs to be reconsidered by a larger bench. In M. Nagaraj, a five-judge constitution bench had held that reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in promotions must be subjected to tests of backwardness, representation and efficiency in administration. The Centre has sought a review of this judgment by a larger bench, on the ground that it has led to lack of clarity. The constitution bench reserved its judgment on the question of reference, on August 30. Indications from the hearing are that the bench may consider the plea for reference to a larger bench unnecessary, and instead, seek to clarify the Nagaraj judgment.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said that the 2016 verdict need not be referred to a larger bench. Clarifying the original verdict, the bench ruled that states need not collect quantifiable data on backwardness of SC/ST for giving quota in job promotion to SC/ST employees.

5. Ayodhya reference

On July 20, a three-judge bench led by the CJI, reserved its verdict on pleas to refer the 1994 constitution bench’s judgment in Ismail Faruqui v Union of India, to a larger bench. In Ismail Faruqui, the court had held that mosques are not integral to Islam. The observation of the constitution bench, according to the petitioners, would influence the outcome in the Babri Masjid title dispute before the court, and therefore, must be reconsidered by a larger bench, for its correctness. If the three-judge bench decides against reference, it could be considered a victory for the Centre. The unexpected plea came in the way of the CJI hearing and deciding the title dispute before his term ends.

UPDATE: The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to refer to a five-judge bench the Ayodhya land dispute issue and held that the 1994 Ismail Faruqui judgment need not be revisited. In a majority verdict of 2:1, the apex court said the civil suit has to be decided on the basis of evidence and the previous verdict has no relevance on it.

6. Criminalisation of politics

The petitions seeking directions to the Election Commission to restrict political parties from fielding candidates facing criminal charges led the constitution bench to a quandary. While it agreed with the petitioners that the rising number of MLAs and MPs facing criminal charges is a matter of concern, it wondered whether it is within its jurisdiction to add a new ground for disqualifying candidates through the back door. The hearing of the case suggests that the bench may ask the EC to insist that political parties publicise the criminal antecedents of its candidates on their websites, and also in other campaign materials.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, the court refused to bar politicians with pending criminal charges from contesting elections. Instead, the court urged the parliament to consider such a disqualification. The court noted the “steady rise in the criminalisation of politics” but put the onus of ending it on the parliament.

7. Arrest of activists

The hearing of the case led the three-judge bench, headed by the CJI to make profound observations like, ‘dissent is the safety valve of democracy’ and that the ‘liberty of individuals cannot be curtailed at the altar of conjectures’. If the court takes these observations to their logical conclusion, and quashes the illegal arrests of the five activists in the Bhima Koregan case, it will be a huge victory for democracy and dissent. On September 21, the bench reserved its verdict on the plea of five eminent citizens for an independent probe, monitored by the court, into the allegations against the activists.

UPDATE: On Friday, the Supreme Court refused to constitute an SIT into the arrests of the activists and ordered four more weeks of house arrest, during which the activists may approach a trial court for bail.

8. Plea for live-streaming of court proceedings

A three-judge bench, which heard the case, reserved its judgment on August 24.

UPDATE: The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to live-streaming and video recording of court proceedings. The apex court said that necessary rules for balancing rights of public and protecting dignity of litigants will be placed soon.

9. Guidelines to curb vandalism by vigilante groups

A petition, filed by Kodungallur Film Society, seeking such guidelines, got surprise support from the Centre, through attorney general K.K. Venugopal, who offered to assist the court, in the case. The CJI-led three judge bench reserved its verdict on August 10, after requesting the petitioner and the Centre, to submit their proposals.

10. Aseer Jamal v Union of India

The three judge bench, presided by the CJI, reserved its order on July 5, in Aseer Jamal v Union of India, which sought guidelines to enable the States to amend the RTI rules to secure access of information to the visually impaired, the orthopaedically handicapped, and those unable to write or converse in Hindi. In this case too, the court noted the assistance of the AG, to address the petitioner’s concerns.

11. Judgment on legislators practicing as advocates

On July 9, the CJI-led three-judge bench reserved its order on a plea seeking a ban on legislators practising as advocates. The petitioner, Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, who is an office-bearer of the BJP, argued that the Bar Council of India debars salaried employees from practising as advocates, and as lawmakers draw a salary from the public exchequer, the bar is applicable to them. The court was of the view during the hearing that employment postulates a master-servant relationship, which is missing in the case of a legislator as the government is not a master.

UPDATE: Therefore, it was not surprising that the Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, justices A.M. Khanwalikar and D.Y. Chandrachud on Tuesday said lawyers elected as lawmakers can practice in court.

12. Ahmed Patel’s election to Rajya Sabha

On September 18, the CJI-led three-judge bench reserved its verdict on a petition by Congress leader Ahmed Patel against the Gujarat high court order to proceed with the hearing of an election petition by Balwant Singh Rajput, challenging his election to the Rajya Sabha in 2017. Rajput had alleged that Patel indulged in corrupt practice by lodging 44 MLAs in a hotel in Bengaluru, prior to the election. He also challenged the Election Commission’s decision to invalidate two votes by Congress MLAs, who had defied the party whip, overruling the decision of the returning officer, who found them valid.

UPDATE: The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Gujarat high court to decide afresh Patel’s plea challenging the maintainability of a petition filed by a BJP leader against his election to the Rajya Sabha.

The remaining cases

  • Union of India v Hardy Exploration, a civil appeal in an arbitration matter, reserved on September 5. (UPDATE: The Supreme Court delivered the judgment on Tuesday.)
  • Uttaradi Mutt v Raghavendra Swamy Mutt, a religious and charitable endowment case, reserved on September 7. (UPDATE: The Supreme Court delivered the judgment on Wednesday.)
  • Union of India v E. Krishna Rao, a civil appeal involving a service matter, reserved on August 7. (UPDATE: The Supreme Court delivered the judgment on Wednesday.)
  • Coal India Limited v Navin Kumar Singh, a civil appeal, involving a service matter and seniority, reserved on February 19. This is perhaps the only case, where a judgment by the CJI-led bench, has taken more than seven months to be delivered after conclusion of hearing. (UPDATE: The Supreme Court delivered the judgment on Tuesday.)

Note: This article is being updated as the Supreme Court delivers verdicts in the cases listed.

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