Justice Ajit Nath Ray was born on January 29th, 1912. Ray J studied at the Presidency College at Calcutta in M.A. Modern History. He also studied at the Oriel College, a constituent of the Oxford University and pursued B.A. in Honours School of Modern History.
In 1939, Ray J was called to the Bar by the Society of Gray’s Inn, following which he practised at the Calcutta High Court. He was elevated to a Judge at the Supreme Court on August 1st, 1969 and became the Chief Justice of India on April 26th, 1973.
Ray J’s elevation as Chief Justice by the Indira Gandhi Government was in defiance of the seniority principle, where he superseded Justice Shelat, who was in line to become the CJI and two other senior Judges of the Court. At that time, Law Minister Mohan Kumaramangalam formulated the ‘committed judiciary’ theory, stating that the government was bound to consider not just judicial integrity, but the philosophy and outlook of Judges in its appointments.
The seniority principle is an unwritten convention, where the senior-most Judge of the Court is appointed as Chief Justice. Since the seniority principle was evolved in the 1950s, it has been justified as protecting the office of the Chief Justice from political interference. The Chief Justice plays a particularly important role as she is in charge of assigning cases to Judges and constituting Benches. For instance, the Ray Court saw a dip in the overall percentage of Special Leave Petitions admitted for regular hearings. Further, while the Court under Ray CJI was initially liberal about admitting Fundamental Rights cases, admission of these cases saw a marked decline in 1974.
Critics of the seniority principle argue that seniority may not ensure merit. Seniority could also result in a ‘revolving-door Chief Justiceship’.
Critics further argue that even the seniority principle does not ensure freedom from political interference. They say that even in the period immediately after Independence, judges and lawyers who were offered judgeship were already thinking about being appointed to the position of Chief Justice.
It has been argued that the strategic appointment of Judges in the expectation that the seniority convention will lead to their elevation as Chief Justice has become increasingly common. This chips away at the notion that the seniority principle is the best way to ensure judicial independence.
Bearing the brunt of this unfortunate legacy, Justice Ray was largely seen as a political appointee and known for delivering judgments in line with the Government’s policies. However, his judgments themselves are marked by remarkable conciseness, structural integrity and clarity of thought.
After Chief Justice Ray’s retirement in 1977, he was succeeded by Justice Beg. Beg J, appointed by the Indira Gandhi Government, superseded Justice Khanna, who formed the sole dissenting voice in ADM Jabalpur v Shivkant Shukla, 1976. There was a return to the seniority principle when Morarji Desai became Prime Minister.
In the Court’s famed decision in Kesavananda Bharti v State of Kerala, 1973, the petitioners, who represented landowners and other persons who held substantial property, challenged Parliament’s unlimited powers to amend the Constitution under Article 368. The principal question that arose was whether there were any implied limitations on the amendment powers of Parliament. A 13-Judge Bench heard the challenge, with 7 judges forming the majority and 6 judges dissenting. The majority held that while Parliament was empowered to amend the Constitution, it could not pass an amendment abrogating the basic features of the Constitution. This was known as the ‘Basic Structure Doctrine’.
Ray J wrote a scathing yet crisp dissent. Justice Ray stated that there was no limitation on Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution.
The Indira Gandhi Government, presumably displeased with the Court’s decision in Kesavananda, appointed him as the 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court the very next day.
Chief Justice Ray is also well-known for his majority decision in ADM Jabalpur. Following the declaration of Emergency in 1975 by the Indira Gandhi Government, several politicians and activists were arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971. Detainees challenged their arrest, claiming that this violated their Fundamental Right to Personal Liberty, a facet of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950. Ray CJI in his judgment stated that Article 21 rights may not be enforced if suspended by a Presidential Order under Article 359.