By: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
There is speculation about what sort of Chief Justice of India Justice NV Ramana would make. “He is not the kind of judge who will clash with the executive. Nor is he likely to cause ripples through his legal pronouncements. His will be a quiet term,” said a lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Justice Ramana will be sworn in as the 48th CJI on 24 April. He was appointed as judge of the Supreme Court on 17 February 2014 and will retire on August 26, 2022. He had a brief stint as a journalist with a leading Telugu newspaper and enrolled at the Andhra Pradesh High Court bar in 1983.
He was additional standing counsel for the central government and the Indian Railways at the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT).
He then became the Additional Advocate General of Andhra Pradesh and subsequently a permanent judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2000.
It can be called a quiet journey, during which he honed his knowledge and skills without drawing the limelight. He was at the Andhra Pradesh High Court for 13 years and Acting Chief Justice of the High Court for two months.
He became Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court in September 2013 and got elevated to a judge of the Supreme Court in February 2014.
The CJI is also a Master of the Roster who decides the lists of cases and their assignment among Supreme Court judges. The institution of the Master of the Roster often gets criticised for opacity and lack of objectivity. One particular criticism is that it does not list ‘contentious’ matters at all. Whether the CJI-designate changes this during his term is yet to be revealed.
For instance, petitions that challenge the abrogation of Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, and the electoral bond scheme did not get a hearing during the tenure of Justice Ramana’s predecessor. These petitions are pending despite constitutional importance. Justice Ramana’s legacy will depend upon whether he will take up “contentious” cases such as these three.
As the head of the Collegium, his immediate task would be to fill the vacancies in the Supreme Court. Will he bring the other four judges of the Collegium on the same page to break the impasse in the Collegium will be something to watch out for.
CJI-designate Ramana does not seem to generate high expectations that he will be a judge in shining armour. He is not your high-profile judge who will stride like a colossus.
CJI Koka Subba Rao made a name for himself when he pronounced in the famous Golaknath case that Article 368 (which lays down the procedure to amend the Constitution) does not empower the Parliament to amend Fundamental Rights. But Justice Ramana is expected to be a low-key CJI.
According to observers in the legal fraternity, he is not the kind of person who would create constitutional storms through his judgments. Perhaps that is an impertinent view, for he may surprise all, as Justice Subba Rao did in the Golaknath case.
The one case that seems to be on every mind is the Jammu and Kashmir internet connection case. In it, Justice Ramana ruled that freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the internet is protected by Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g).
A senior counsel speaking on condition of anonymity says, “He [Justice Ramana] does not believe only in abstract and theoretical interpretation of law. He is aware that the law has to deal with people’s problems. And he sees the function of law as a means to help people.”
The senior counsel further explains: “He does not belong to the elite group of judges. He comes from a different background with an experiential touch of life. He understands people, and he can sense who is genuine and who is not. He Andhra sympathises with the plight of the people who knock on the doors on the doors of the Supreme Court and seek justice.”
Says a journalist who has reported from the Delhi High Court as well as the Supreme Court, and who has observed the ways of Justice Ramana, “He has sympathy for the poor and he has always tried to help them. He has created a fund from which to help the families of people who had been languishing in prisons when he was executive chairman of the National Legal Services Authority. He is not the kind of judge who would deliver brilliant judgments replete with wit and wisdom, knowledge of law and literature. His term would be a quiet one. He will not take up cudgels on behalf of the judiciary against the executive.”
However, he also praises Justice Ramana as one of the few judges who are at home with technology. “He is at home with technology compared to many of his fellow judges in the Delhi High Court as well as in the Supreme Court. He is an efficient administrator,” he says.
Justice Ramana also won the hearts of the members of the Delhi High Court Bar Association through his administrative abilities. He is considered a master court administrator. Says a lawyer who had argued many a case before Justice Ramana at the Delhi High Court, “He is a superb administrator, and he has proved his credentials on this point when he was the chief justice of the Delhi High Court. That is why, the Delhi High Bar Council Association had passed a resolution condemning Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy’s letter to Chief Justice Bobde against Justice Ramana. The Delhi High Court lawyers valued Justice Ramana.”
During his time as chairman of the judicial academy, he organised a conference, for the first time in India, of judicial officers of all ranks, police officers, correctional services authorities, juvenile justice boards, advocates, prosecutors, womens’ organisations, social groups and media representatives for a dialogue on the menace of sexual assault on women.
His recommendations based on the dialogue in the conference made it to the Justice Verma Commission, thus helped reshape the administration of criminal justice. He had also organised the first Public Prosecutors Conference while at the Andhra Pradesh High Court. He has authored many papers, including one on global legal education, which got much attention.
He is keen on judicial reform and favours Alternate Dispute Redressal mechanisms. He is all for regional languages as a means of justice delivery.
He is a staunch advocate of personal freedoms and liberties. He was on the Supreme Court bench that ruled that even under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), it is possible to consider a bail plea if a trial was not proceeding. The bench observed that an accused could spend more time as an undertrial than even the likely sentence.
He is also known to favour transparency over legal casuistry, as witnessed during the hearings of the petition regarding the political stalemate in Maharashtra. He ruled that a vote of confidence should be held immediately, to cut short the possibility of horse-trading. (IPA Service)