7 August 2018 was a historic day for the Supreme Court of India. For the first time in its history, it had three women on its roster: Justices Banumathi, Malhotra and Banerjee. This month, however, the Court is once again reduced to only two female judges. J. Banumath officially retires today.
Having started off her legal career in the District and Mofussil Court of Tamil Nadu, J. Banumathi’s first judicial appointment was as a district judge. Very few District Court judges ever make it to the higher judiciary, let alone the Supreme Court. After all, our Apex Court is dominated by judges whose first judicial appointment was to a High Court, after a lengthy career of litigation. Hence, unlike most of her colleagues, J. Banumathi has served as a judge for over three decades.
When compared to the other women judges in the Supreme Court’s history, J. Banumathi stands apart in two ways. First, she had a six-year tenure at the Court, greatly exceeding the average of 3.87 years. Second, she has written the most judgments: 386. In fact, she has authored more judgments than any of the presently sitting Justices of the Supreme Court, regardless of gender.
Most of J. Banumathi’s judgments revolve around criminal law. Her judgment writing is marked by the qualities of rigour and thoroughness. Notably, as the only female judge of the Bench in Mukesh v. State for NCT of Delhi (Nirbhaya case), J. Banumathi advocated for robust social reforms to achieve gender justice and equality. In addition, she concurred with the majority and upheld the death penalty for the accused.
In a dissent characteristic of her attention to detail, she disagreed with J. Gogoi about the scope of reservation benefits available to migrant SC/STs in Bir Singh v. Delhi Jal Board. J. Gogoi held that SC/STs from any State could claim benefits offered by the Delhi Jal Board, since it’s managed by the Union Government. However, J. Banumathi was quick to point out that recruitment for some Board posts was carried out by the Delhi Government. She concluded that legal precedent demanded that only posts for which recruitment was carried out by the Centre could be available to migrant SC/STs.
With J. Banumathi retiring today, the question many familiar with the Court ask, is when will the next judge be appointed? As we wrote about earlier this week, the Collegium is unlikely to push through any elevations before J. Arun Mishra retires on 2 September. When the Collegium sits later this year, will we see a woman among the list of recommended names?
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