In early January 2018 four Indian Supreme Court Justices held a press conference in New Dehli to complain about the actions Chief Justice Dipak Misra. The public move came following a letter from the Justices presented to the Chief Justice four months earlier.  

The Justices’ complaints centred on the Chief Justice’s handling of a judicial investigation into the death of their colleague, Justice BH Loya, who allegedly died of a heart attack on route to his daughter’s wedding in November 2014. They said that, contrary to established procedures, the Chief Justice has allocated the case to a relatively junior judge.  The four judges also raised concerns about appointments to nation’s highest court.

In the press conference Justices Chelameshwar, Gogoi, Lokur and Joseph explained that this deviation from conventional judicial practice, which strictly prioritises judicial seniority in case allocation, compelled them to intervene and preserve the integrity of the system.

Such public judicial criticism of other judges is unprecedented. The Indian Supreme Court can seat up to 31 Justices at any one time with allocation to specific cases handled solely by the Chief Justice. This administrative function is heavily influenced by convention, with seniority playing a significant role in determining the allocation of the most sensitive high profile cases. It is deviation from this norm which has led the four Justices in question to go public with their criticism of the Chief Justice.

This backlash was perhaps exacerbated by the sensitivity of the Loya case. Many of the Justices, included all four involved, regarded the death as suspicious and were convinced that the investigation needed to be thorough.  A hundred opposition MPs have recently petitioned the President seeking a special investigation into the death. The Chief Justice provided little rationale for the allocation of a junior judge to this high profile case. This, in turn, led to murmurs of bribery and corruption.

The four judges were supported by a number of retired judges, who released an open letter in which they said

“We agree with the four judges that though the chief justice of India is the master of roster and can designate benches for allocation of work, this does not mean that it can be done in an arbitrary manner such that sensitive and important cases are sent to hand-picked benches of junior judges by the chief justice,”

The move also prompted criticism, with the Judges’ unprecedented move dividing legal professionals and commentators. In the light of their own strong views, it could be argued that none of the four Justices in question could have overseen the Loya case without the appearance of bias. The Chief Justice met with the four Justices on 24 January 2018.

In the wake of the press conference the Hoot sought to draw some wider lessons about the use of contempt of court laws to silence critics of the judiciary. It suggested that there have been widespread abuses of the law, including orders against sitting and former judges. It points out that the four judges who gave the press conference have themselves made such orders in the past.

The use of a press conference by judges to criticise their colleagues is a troubling development which is likely to raise questions about the current state of the Indian judiciary.

Suneet Sharma is junior legal professional with a particular interest and experience in media law