For a while now, commentators have remarked about the “polyvocal” character of the Indian Supreme Court. The Court comprises of 28 judges who sit, for the most part, in benches of two (or at most, three). For this reason, the Supreme Court – it is argued – is better thought of not as a single “Court”, but as many different courts of equal authority, who may often speak with different – or even opposed – voices on the same issue (consider, for instance, that time in the late 2000s, when Justices Sinha and Pasayat were handing down what were virtually duelling judgments on the death penalty). This, in turn, leads to patchwork jurisprudence, which is internally inconsistent, and invariably influenced by judicial personalities to a degree that is probably far greater than in other jurisdictions, where judges sit en banc, or at least, in a substantially larger number.
However, for all the problems of inconsistency (and even incoherence), the fact remains that any judgment handed down by a judge carries the authority of the Supreme Court of India. That judgment speaks for the Court, and by extension, for the other twenty-six judges not party to the judgment.
Keeping this in mind, I want to focus on an issue that is separate from the problems of institutional incoherence and contradictory jurisprudence, but which is becoming increasingly pressing. The polyvocal character of the Supreme Court would, under normal circumstances, be constrained by two centripetal forces: a respect for precedent – including judgments delivered by Constitution Benches from a time when two-judge benches were the exception rather than the norm – and the limited scope of the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e., the Court can only rule upon issues that are brought before it, and which concern questions of law). Institutional inconsistency, therefore, would remain a bounded inconsistency, both in terms of its content, and in terms of its subject matter.
In my view, at this point of time, both these centripetal forces (after having been consistently undermined for the last three decades, both in the Court and in the academy) are virtually non-existent. Constitution Bench precedents are regularly ignored, or distinguished on dubious bases, and the scope of PIL has now become so vast that the idea of a limit on the Court’s jurisdiction is almost laughable. This, effectively, concentrates great power in the hands of individual judges to shape or mould areas of law in a manner that is simply not contemplated in a functioning legal system.
To understand why this is a problem in the specific context of a polyvocal court, let us consider what Justice Dipak Misra (the second-most senior judge of the Court, and scheduled to become Chief Justice of India this August) has done to Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. In Devidas Tuljapurkar, he ignored fifty years of precedent and invented out of thin air a new standard of obscenity applicable only to “historically respectable personalities.” In Subramanian Swamy, he upheld the constitutionality of criminal defamation as it stood, ignored the conflict that the ruling set up with the coordinate bench judgment in R. Rajagopal vs State of TN, concerning the different standards in civil and criminal defamation law, and invented a mythical doctrine of “constitutional fraternity” to justify this. In his interim orders in the national anthem case, he has ignored the binding judgments of nine judges in Naresh Mirajkar and five judges in Rupa Ashok Hurra, as well as the basics of separation of powers, and has made the playing of the national anthem compulsory in cinemas before every film. In his interim orders in Sabu Mathew George, he has passed interim orders on the “auto-blocking” of keywords for sex determination, supposedly justified under the PCPNDT Act, but without any consideration of the 19(1)(a) issues at play (including those of intermediary liability). And in the Azam Khan case, which he is presently hearing, he has framed issues on whether political figures can be restrained from commenting on rape allegations, on the basis of another invented doctrine labeled “constitutional compassion” (and also goes against a line of judgments starting with Sakal Papers and ending with Shreya Singhal, which have made it clear that freedom of speech can be restricted only on the grounds listed in Article 19(2)). Out of the five cases mentioned above, four have come to the Court as PILs.
These five cases make it clear that Justice Dipak Misra does not consider the freedom of speech to be of much value. That is his personal prerogative; however, when in case after case, brought to the Court through flimsy PILs, he passes judgments that place vast swathes of speech off limits, through the invention of new doctrines completely untethered from constitutional text and at odds with clear precedent, it becomes a serious problem.
Now, in ordinary circumstances, to implement his views on free speech (or the lack thereof), Justice Misra would have had to convince a bench of five or seven judges to agree with him. However, as the senior judge in a two judge bench, he only has to convince one judge – and anyone who has spent any time in the Supreme Court knows that puisne judges rarely assert themselves against senior judges (there are exceptions, of course).
When, therefore, you combine the following features: decisions being rendered effectively by one individual (who is assigned these cases based on roster determinations by another individual, the Chief Justice), the declining importance of precedent, the evisceration of subject matter and jurisdictional limits, the fact that Article 145(3) (which requires that issues of substantial constitutional importance be heard by a bench of at least five judges) is more or less a dead letter (because the decision to refer is made by the judge hearing the case in the first place), and the predominance of PIL (which, as Anuj Bhuwania points out in his book, often amounts to the Court choosing a petitioner as much as it does a petitioner choosing the Court), you get the following result: the power to shape crucial areas of law, including fundamental rights, which impact peoples’ lives, rests in the hands of single individuals; and every institutional feature that might place a check upon those individuals’ predilections becoming the law of the land has been rendered virtually non-existent. The most basic and most important feature about a constitutional court – that its decisions ought to be rendered through a collegial process, involving give and take and compromise between judges of differing views – has completely gone.
This takes us to a crucial question, which arises simply because of what the Court has become: what about the responsibility of the other twenty-six judges who sit on the Supreme Court? For example, I suspect – and indeed, I would hope – that many of them have strongly different views on the role of free speech in a constitutional democracy, or at the very least, that they disapprove of the use of PILs to advance an anti-free speech jurisprudence that runs counter to precedent, text, and the separation of powers. In such a situation, it seems particularly problematic that a single individual (by virtue of the CJI-determined roster – and the concentration of power in the hands of the CJI will be the subject of a further post) gets to speak for the Court on issues of such great constitutional importance.
The Court as a whole, therefore, has the responsibility of evolving a mechanism that prevents this. Perhaps issues involving any article of the Constitution must compulsorily be sent to a five-judge bench, regardless of the referring judge’s opinion. Perhaps in issues involving constitutional articles, judges not on the two-judge bench should be able to write dissenting notes on the exposition of law involved – a radical suggestion, but this is a Court operating in an entirely unprecedented context. Whatever the solution, however, it is important to stress that the other twenty-six judges have to bear a substantial share of the responsibility: we cannot employ the fiction of “many different Supreme Courts” to absolve judges who, as part of the institution, acquiesce to judicial conduct and jurisprudence that they find contrary to the Constitution. Inaction must imply agreement.
I do not suggest that either of the two potential solutions outlined above will work; at the very least, though, this is a conversation that we must now begin to have.