New Delhi, Jan 12 (IANS): Divisions in the Supreme Court burst out in the open on Friday when four senior most judges took an unprecedented step of addressing the media to accuse Chief Justice Dipak Misra of breaching rules in assigning cases to appropriate benches, with one of them pointing to the plea regarding the mysterious death of Special CBI judge B.H. Loya.
At a hurriedly called press conference at his residence, Justice J. Chelameswar and three other colleagues said the Supreme Court administration was "not in order" and their efforts to persuade Justice Misra even this morning "with a specific request" failed, forcing them to "communicate with the nation" directly.
The four judges -- Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph and Madan B. Lokur besides Justice Chelameswar -- released a letter they wrote to Justice Misra a couple of months ago, conceding that he was the master of roster but that was "not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual of the Chief Justice over his colleagues".
Asked specifically if they were upset over reference of the matter seeking a probe into the suspicious death of Judge Loya, Justice Gogoi said: "Yes."
Judge Loya, who was hearing a case relating to the killing of gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh in an alleged fake shootout in which BJP chief Amit Shah was named an accused (later discharged), died of cardiac arrest in 2014. His family has raised doubts over the circumstances in which Judge Loya died and have sought an independent probe into it.
Pleas seeking probe came up for a hearing in the Supreme Court on Friday when the top court expressed concerns over it and said it was a "serious issue". It asked the Maharashtra government to produce all the documents related to the case before January 15.
In a seven-page letter, the four judges said they were not mentioning details of the cases only to avoid embarrassing the institution because "such departures have already damaged the images of this institution to some extent".
The clash among the judges in the highest court also comes in the wake of a controversial order in November in which Justice Misra declared that the Chief Justice "is the master of the roster" having exclusive power to decide which case will go to which judge.
The CJI had given the order a day after a two-judge bench headed by Justice Chelameswar had passed an order that a five-judge bench of senior most judges in the apex court should be set up to consider an independent probe into a corruption case in which bribes were allegedly taken in the name of settling cases pending before Supreme Court judges.
Holding that the Chief Justice was only the first among equals, the four judges contended that there were well-settled and time-honoured conventions guiding the Chief Justice in dealing with the strength of the bench required or the composition thereof.
"A necessary corollary to the above mentioned principle is the members of any multi-numbered judicial body, including this court, would not arrogate to themselves the authority to deal with and pronounce upon matters which ought to be heard by appropriate benches, both composition-wise and strength-wise with due regard to the roster fixed," they wrote in the letter.
They said any departure from the two rules would not only lead to "unpleasant and undesirable consequences of creating doubt in the body politic about the integrity of the institution" but would create "chaos".
The four judges also touched upon another controversial issue, the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) on appointment of judges over which the Supreme Court had locked horns with the government.
The government, the letter said, had not responded to the communication and "in view of this silence it must be taken that the MoP has been accepted by the government on the basis of the order of this court".
Justice Chelameswar told the media that they were "convinced that unless this institution is protected and maintains its requirements, democracy will not survive in the country or any country... The hallmark of a democracy is independent and impartial judges.
"Since all our efforts failed... Even this morning, on a particular issue, we went and met the Chief Justice with a specific request. Unfortunately we could not convince him that we were right."
Justice Gogoi said they were "discharging debt to the nation that has got us here".
The government appeared to distance itself from the controversy, saying the judges should sort the issue themselves.
Minister of State for Law P.P. Chaudhary said: "Our judiciary is one of the known, recognised judiciaries in the world. It is an indepenedent judiciary. At this stage I think no agency is required to intervene or interfere. The Chief Justice and other members should sit together and resolve. There is no question of panic."
The Supreme Court split had an immediate political fallout, with CPI leader D. Raja saying after meeting Justice Chelameswar that Parliament will have to device methods to sort out problems like this in the top judiciary.
Two judges, Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageshwar Rao, are understood to have called on Justice Chelameswar.