In 5 Months, the SC Conducted a Remarkable 55 CB Hearings
After a long time, the Court is abuzz with Constitution Bench activity, with hearings in 16 cases and Judgements in 13.
Constitution Benches, consisting of five, seven or nine Judges, answer substantial questions of law or interpret the Constitution. In recent years, buried under an impossible load of pending cases, the Supreme Court had not frequently held Constitution Bench hearings. The last time we saw significant constitution bench activity was perhaps late 2019 when the SC delivered 5 key judgements including the RTI and Judicial Independence case, the Ayodhya dispute and the Sabrimala review between October 2019 to December 2019. Since then, however, the frequency of hearings drastically reduced.
Under CJI N.V. Ramana’s 1.5 year tenure, Constitution Bench hearings came to a complete standstill. CJI U.U. Lalit, whose tenure was but 2.5 months, took almost a militant approach towards bringing back Constitution Bench hearings. The momentum which began then, appears to continue under CJI D.Y. Chandrachud. This year may mark the highest constitution bench activity recorded this decade.
This year, the Supreme Court conducted Constitution Bench hearings 55 times, across 16 different cases. Specifically, these were 5-Judge Constitution Benches. While in some cases, the number of hearings were as low as one, in others, 14 hearings were conducted.
Figure 1 breaks down the number of hearings in each case. The Maharashtra MLA disqualification case was heard across 14 hearings. This amounts to almost 25.5% of the total Constitution Bench hearings this year.
Hearings for queer marriage equality stands second with 10 days of hearings. The Judgement in this case is expected to be delivered after the Court returns from summer vacation in July, 2023. This case has consumed about 18% of the total Constitution Bench hearings this year.
The tussle between the Union and the Delhi Government for power over services in the national capital region was heard over six days. Among these, five were dedicated to arguments, while the judgement was pronounced on the sixth day on May 11th, 2023.
To decide if the ‘group of companies doctrine’ is applicable in India, another CJI-led Bench heard the matter for five days and reserved judgement. The Union’s curative petition seeking additional compensation for victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy was heard by a Bench led by S.K. Kaul for four days.
In all the single-day hearings, Constitution Benches pronounced judgements in cases pending from previous years. Of the hearings conducted this year, the SC delivered judgements in four cases. This indicates that 24% of the total Constitution Bench proceedings this year were for judgement pronouncements.
Figure 2 shows the time that each case has remained before the SC. The ‘age of the case’ is calculated as the time between when a case was first filed before the Court to when its Judgement was delivered. In 8 of the 13 cases, the judgements have come 5 years after they were first filed.
The oldest case that the Court closed this year is Central Board Of Dawoodi Bohra Community v State Of Maharashtra. This case was first initiated in 1986 and wasreferred to a Constitution Bench in 2004. This year the Court Justice S.K. Kaul’s Bench referred it to the 9-Judge Bench in the Sabarimala case. The case has remained in the Court for a whopping 36 year period.
The ‘youngest’ case is the Shiv Sena conflict in Maharashtra. This case was filed in June, 2022 and was completed in 10 months. The questions surrounding the rebellion within the Shiv Sena took up the lion’s share of the Constitution Bench proceedings this year.