The Ticking Clock: Marriage Equality Arguments at the SC

DESK BRIEF: How is the SC managing hearing time in the marriage equality case?

On Tuesday (April 18th), the Supreme Court began hearing the batch of pleas seeking marriage equality for the queer community under the Special Marriage Act, 1954 (SMA). Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, who leads the 5-Judge Constitution Bench hearing the case, appears to have borrowed some of his predecessor’s tactics to hear the case efficiently. When CJI U.U. Lalit led the Constitution Bench in the challenge to economic reservations, he imposed strict time limits on the arguing counsel. That case concluded in eight days. 

Similarly, CJI Chandrachud restricted the petitioner’s time to make arguments in the marriage equality case. Despite nearly 20 petitioners asking for 33 hours altogether, the Bench directed them to complete their arguments by Monday (April 24th) at the latest. This gives the petitioners less than half the time they initially sought to conclude their diverse submissions. When faced with a horde of advocates seeking more time, CJI Chandrachud mentioned how the U.S. Supreme Court requires lawyers to complete their arguments in 30 minutes. Click here to read more about the Indian Supreme Court’s struggles with lengthy arguments.

Some of the arguing counsels have taken this in stride. Senior Advocate Raju Ramachandran initially sought three hours to make his arguments. Following the Court’s directions, he cut his submissions down to 45 minutes. Despite this, he maintained a deliberate pace and upon conclusion, the Bench commended him for making focused and comprehensive arguments in a limited timeframe. Others were perhaps less successful at managing their time. Sr. Adv. K.V. Vishwanathan spent the lion’s share of his allotted time arguing against the notion that procreation was an integral aspect of marriage. As a result, he was forced to rush through his submissions dealing with the right to marry for transgender persons. 

The only lawyer who was given the time he initially sought was Sr. Adv. A.M. Singhvi, who argued for four hours over two days. As a result, Dr. Singhvi was able to provide a wider range of arguments in comparison to his peers. As some observers expected, Dr. Singhvi (as well as the other senior counsels) relied on foreign jurisprudence to help the Court navigate the question of marriage equality. He relied on a House of Lords case called Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza (2004) to argue that the Court could interpret the SMA to fall in line with constitutional principles of equality and non-discrimination. It did not matter that Parliament likely did not envision marriage equality under the SMA when it was enacted.

The SC will continue hearing the case on Monday (April 24th) and we will see which arguments will shine and which ones will fall through the cracks.