The Supreme Court is slated to return from its winter break on 4 January. In this Winter Session Review post, we look back and analyse the short term spanning 33 days.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court continued the suspension of physical court functioning. Instead, it relied on video conferencing. In this session review, we look at the three most important cases of the term, key personnel changes and the cases to look forward to.
The Three Most Important Cases
1. Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil v. Chief Minister, Maharashtra 2018- Maharashtra passed the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, 2018 ('Act') to extend reservations to the Maratha community. The Act grants the Marathas 16% reservations in education and public employment. Its introduction reserved over 70% of seats in Maharashtra. This opened floodgates of petitions challenging the Act before the Bombay High court. The High Court upheld the SEBC Act but reduced the reserved seats to 12% in education and 13% in public employment.
When the case moved to the Supreme Court, one of the key issues was whether the State has the power to exceed the 50% reservation ceiling set by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India. After hearing the parties, the three-judge bench determined that the issue involved substantial questions of law on the interpretation of the Constitution. Hence, it needed to be heard by a Constitution bench.
A five-judge bench consisting of J. Ashok Bhushan, J. Nageswara Rao, J. Abdul Nazeer, J. Hemant Gupta and J. Ravindra Bhat will be hearing this case on a day-to-day basis from 25 January 2021 onwards.
With an ongoing crackdown under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act), the Tofan Singh judgment assumes great significance. The case revolved around conflicts arising from three laws, namely, the NDPS Act, The Evidence Act, 1872 and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC).
The Court had to answer two crucial questions: first, whether officers under the NDPS Act would be construed as traditional Police Officers. Second, what would be the evidentiary value of confessions given to such officers?
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising J. Rohinton F. Nariman, J. Naveen Sinha and J. Indira Banerjee, in its majority judgment, deemed officers under the NDPS Act as police officers. They invoked S.25 of The Evidence Act and concluded that confessions to such officers cannot be used during the trial. Read our analysis of this judgment here and here.
In December last year, nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 dominated public discourse in India. In this case, the Supreme Court had to decide if Shaheen Bagh protestors had blocked public spaces.
The three-judge bench consisting of J. Sanjay Kishan Kaul, J. Aniruddha Bose and J. Krishna Murari pronounced a unanimous judgment. It noted that the right to freedom of speech and expression and right to assembly granted the Shaheen Bagh occupants the right to protest. However, this right was subject to the public interest exception. In this case, indefinite blockage of public spaces tilted the balance in favour of the public interest exception. More here.
Key Personnel Changes
The Collegium did not take any decision concerning the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court. Instead, it focussed on the appointment of Chief Justices and transfer of judges in the High Courts.
With Justice Indu Malhotra retiring on 13 March 2021 the strength of the Court will be reduced to 29 judges. Amidst tackling online courts and other COVID induced administrative concerns, will the Court be able to select new Justices in the next term?
Cases to Look Forward to
As mentioned above, the Court is likely to give its judgment in the Maratha Reservation case in the next term. On the other hand, it is yet to hear other key constitutional cases. Cases such as the Challenge to Electoral Bonds, Challenge to A. 370, Challenge to Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, Constitutionality of UAPA Amendment Act, and Constitutionality of the amendment to Foreigners Tribunal Order 1964 were not taken up in the past term. Taking up these cases through video conferencing might pose pressing challenges. Logistically the Court might find it hard to bring together several petitioners and impleading parties in each case. Moreover, in politically sensitive matters such as the challenge to Electoral Bonds, challenge to Citizenship Amendment Act and the Foreigners Tribunal Order, the Court might prefer physical hearing over virtual ones. Currently, it seems unlikely that these matters will be taken up before physical hearings resume.