The new Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde, took charge on 18 November. He assumes office at a time when a number of critical questions that pertain to India’s constitutional democracy are before the Supreme Court. As the ‘master of the roster’, the CJI will have the unenviable task of ensuring that these cases are quickly allotted to appropriate benches and a resolution found at the earliest.
In his last week at the office, ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi referred two key issues to larger benches. The first pertains to women’s entry to certain religious places and will have implications for how the Court balances the right to equality and freedom of religion. It may also provide a definitive answer to the question of what constitutes an essential religious practice, something the Court has failed to settle conclusively. The second relates to the ambit of Money Bills and whether the Finance Act, 2017, falls within the scope of such bills. An indirect effect of this reference is that it may provide a bright-line on how far the Lok Sabha can go in evading the scrutiny of Rajya Sabha and may even eventually lead to a re-assessment of the Aadhaar Act.
Another pressing issue before the CJI is the Electoral Bonds Scheme. The petitions related to the Scheme - which has come under the scanner for its impact on the transparent funding of political parties - were last listed in April 2019 before a Division Bench comprising the ex-CJI. On 12 April, the Bench made an interim direction to all the political parties to confidentially submit the details of funding received via Electoral Bonds to the Election Commission. Given the recent renewed public criticism of the scheme, it will be interesting to see the kind of priority the CJI accords to the matter.
One issue that the CJI has already signaled he will prioritize is the judiciary’s massive backlog of cases. Earlier this week, at a Constitution Day function held at the Supreme Court, he reflected on the need for reform to reduce the number of pending cases: ‘we need something transformational…[to ensure]…timely justice to India’s citizens’. Ex-CJI Gogoi had echoed similar sentiments at the beginning of his term, when he instituted a case to monitor vacancies in the lower judiciary. It remains to be seen whether CJI Bobde will adopt the same approach in tackling the issue.
The above only representS a small sample of the pending matters which require the new CJI’s attention, whose tenure will end in April 2021. Other key cases include the EWS Reservation, UAPA Amendment, Assam NRC and Aadhaar Amendment matters, all of which are being tracked by the SC Observer.
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