New Delhi: Before taking oath as the 48th Chief Justice of India, Justice NV Ramana received blessings. Archas (priests) Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam and Srisaila Devasthanam at his residence on Saturday morning.
Moments after the brief ceremony, the new CJI went to his office in the Supreme Court to chair an urgent meeting with some senior judges to discuss and work out the logistics of the court’s functioning in the face of Covid-19.
“For the last few days, the judges and court staff have become indifferent because someone in their family has fallen ill due to Covid,” a source told ThePrint. “The work of the court cannot be stopped, so the new CJI called a meeting to work out the protocol to be followed.”
The meeting was attended by Justices RF Nariman, UU Lalit, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and LN Rao.
For Justice Ramana, one of the challenges he faces as the new CJI is to keep the court functioning during an unprecedented crisis.
A “God-fearing” person, according to those who know him, Justice Ramana has always maintained a calm and composed demeanor while in court, has spoken only through his judgments and is credited with delivering some landmark judgments that emphasize the values of natural justice and constitutional principles. .
In October last year, he came under attack from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy, who publicly accused Justice Ramana of influencing state High Court judges to pass judgments against his government.
An internal inquiry gave a clean chit to Justice Ramana on March 24, after which CJI SA Bodbe appointed him as his successor.
Speaking to ThePrint about Justice Ramana’s appointment, Supreme Court lawyer Sneha Kalita said, “In this time of crisis we are looking for a CJI who is not only a man of principles but also humble. And I am also very confident under his tutelage, without any doubt , that it would bring gender parity in our judicial system.”
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Student Leader, CJI Journalist
Born into a farming family in Ponnavaram village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, Justice Ramana worked as a student leader, journalist and lawyer as a judge.
His tenure as CJI will last till August 25, 2022.
As a student leader Justice Ramana fought for civil liberties during the Emergency and even missed an academic year. Recounting the experiences of those times, the judge once said at a book launch event that “he had no regrets, because he saw many young people sacrifice their lives to protect human rights.”
Before enrolling as an advocate in 1983, Justice Ramana worked as a journalist. He worked for Eenadu newspaper from 1979 to 1980 and reported on political and legal issues for the newspaper.
As a lawyer, he specialized in constitutional, criminal, service and river laws in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh.
Appointed as a permanent judge of the State High Court in 2000, Justice Ramana was appointed as the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court in 2013, and a year later, he was appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court.
Controversy over the rise of Justice Ramana
The judge’s elevation was overshadowed when a petition was filed against his appointment as an HC judge. The two petitioners told the Supreme Court that Justice Ramana had been convicted in a sedition case and had concealed the fact when he enrolled himself as an advocate in 1983.
The case pertains to a large-scale riot in which several students, including judges, of Nagarjuna University in Guntur allegedly damaged public property, including transport and buses.
Interestingly, the petitioners in the case were represented by a senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, at whose instance the appointment of Justice Ramana was made.
When this incident was reported to Ram Jethmalani, the latter asked what he should do. At the suggestion of the court, the attorney general withdrew from the case.
In February 2013, the application was rejected, at a cost of 50,000 euros to the applicants.
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A regular judge who complies with the principle of judicial discipline
Justice Ramana has been part of several landmark judgments, some of which he has authored. They reflect his adherence to judicial discipline and precedent.
Deciding a series of petitions against internet restrictions in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, a bench headed by him ruled that access to the internet is a fundamental right. He removed the government for the telecommunications blackout after the region’s semi-autonomous status was revoked.
He was also part of a bench that brought the CJI’s office under the Right to Information Act. Another bench headed by Justice Ramana fast-tracked cases pending against MLAs and MLAs, a verdict many cited as the reason for Reddy’s anger.
The judge also delivered judgments in a number of politically sensitive cases, including one related to the Karnataka assembly in 2019, where it was clarified that disqualification under the tenth schedule (anti-expulsion law) could not act as a bar to re-contesting elections.
In Maharashtra’s case, the judge ordered an immediate floor test in the state assembly in 2019 to prevent horse-trading.
And in a ruling that put the spotlight on gender inequality in insurance claims cases, the judge ordered a notional income fix for housewives who don’t win in such cases.
“The amount of time and effort that individuals devote to housework, women are more likely than men, is not surprising given the wide range of activities a housewife carries out,” he said in the ruling.
Challenges of the new CJI
Justice Ramana heads the judiciary at a difficult time. The prospect of the courts reopening for physical hearings now looks bleak given the sharp rise in Covid-19 infections in the capital.
As CJI, Justice Ramana will have to step up digital hearings that have been criticized by lawyers in several cases for technical glitches.
Another major challenge for Justice Ramana would be to fill vacancies in both the Supreme Court and High Courts, where there are just 416 judges against the sanctioned strength of 1,080.
Likewise, there will be 13 vacancies in the apex court during his term.
The judge should take steps to ease appointments in high courts, where the backlog has gone beyond five million cases. He should take immediate steps to convince the chief justice to speed up the process of sending the recommendations as the HCs have not made more than 200 posts so far.
Supreme Court advocate Sunil Fernandes sees Justice Ramana’s appointment as coming at a critical time.
“Every CJI has always had his challenges inside the Supreme Court. But Justice Ramana also faces a big challenge outside the court, in the form of the second wave of resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the lawyer said. “Protecting the image of the Supreme Court as a highly independent Constitutional body and filling the judicial vacancies in the CS and various HCs in a timely manner are two other big challenges that I can foresee. But it is known for its equanimity and consensus approach and I have every reason to believe that it will do a good job.”
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