In search of the first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India

Though justice is usually portrayed as a woman, it has in general been embodied by men. The Supreme Court of India is also mainly a male-dominated institution. It has a strength of 34 Judges, including the Chief Justice of India, but it had only two women Judges one of whom has since retired. Even after 70 years of its existence, the top court could not have a woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This is indeed not good news. There have been very few women Judges in the Supreme Court up till now. Justice Fathima Beevi was the first woman Judge of the Supreme Court of India who was appointed in 1989. The second woman Judge was Justice Sujata V. Manohar who was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1994. The third woman Judge, Justice Ruma Pal, came to the Supreme Court in the year 2000. After her retirement, it was Justice Gyan Sudha Misra who came to the Supreme Court in 2010. In 2011, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai was appointed to the Supreme Court. Justice Banumathi was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2014. Justices Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee came to the Supreme Court in 2018. Justice Indu Malhotra has recently retired and Justice Indira Banerjee will retire next year. All these women Judges have made a great contribution to the Indian judicial system by delivering wonderful judgments on a variety of significant issues relating to public, private law, and governance.

Surprisingly, the Judge-makers of our country could not find even a single woman Judge who would have become the Chief Justice of India even after seven decades of establishment of the Supreme Court. The reason is very simple. First, a lack of willpower on the part of Judge-makers, and second, the formality of seniority convention that plays a very significant role in making the Chief Justice of India. No lady Judge reaches that zone of consideration because of  lack of seniority. For reaching the top position in the Supreme Court, a Judge needs a fairly long tenure of eight or nine years. Only on two occasions, this seniority convention has been breached in 1973 and 1977 during the tenure of Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi when junior Judges were appointed to the office of the Chief Justice of India by superseding their seniors. The legal fraternity had rightly criticised such judicial supersessions loudly. But thereafter the seniority convention has been followed consistently in the appointment of the Chief Justice of India and there does not seem to be any apprehension of its dilution in the future as the Supreme Court has also approved this seniority convention in the Second Judges’ case[1] in 1993. Giving India the first woman Chief Justice is not only a formality, it is a social duty also so that the highest judicial institution could give a message of gender equality to society. The Supreme Court collegium may consider bringing a woman Judge to the Supreme Court who can have a long tenure of service which could help to become the Chief Justice of India after a few years as per the seniority convention. This is a much-needed step toward the cause of women’s empowerment in the judiciary. Bypassing the seniority convention is neither possible nor desirable as the judicial supersessions cause irreparable damage to judicial independence and give an unwanted opportunity to the executive to control the judiciary. Only the timely appointment of woman Judges with long tenure is the best solution to give India the first woman Chief Justice. And for this purpose, the Supreme Court collegium should take initiative. There is no reason to delay this historic decision.

Post-1993, the judiciary has snatched the Judges’ appointment power from the executive through constitutional interpretation in the larger interests of judicial independence. Before 1993, the Prime Minister and the Union Law Minister were very powerful in making judicial appointments.They were the real Judge-makers in the country. But now they have lost such influence.  Under the existing practice, the Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President of India on the recommendation of the Supreme Court collegium which is headed by the Chief Justice of India and consists of four of his seniormost colleagues. This collegium is the actual Judge-maker and the President, Prime Minister, and the Union Law Minister have little say in judicial appointments. Their main job is to implement the decisions of the collegium. However, the Central Government has some scope to delay judicial appointments in some cases.The decisions of the collegium are made by consensus. If two or more Judges oppose the Chief Justice’s proposals, the collegium cannot finalise the names and the President is also not bound to accept such recommendations. This exercise is done to eliminate the sole authority of the Chief Justice of India in judicial appointments. Now the Chief Justice has to build a consensus among all his colleagues and finalise the names accordingly. He cannot ignore their views at all. The President of India is bound to act as per the recommendation of the collegium if it decides the names by consensus. However, the President, as aided and advised by the Prime Minister, has an option to return the recommendation of the collegium once for its reconsideration but thereafter the President is bound to accept the collegium’s recommendation if it reiterates its view. In other words, the collegium has the final say in judicial appointments.

The present Supreme Court collegium is headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde. Its other members are: Justices N.V. Ramana, R.F. Nariman, U.U. Lalit, and A.M. Khanwilkar. As of now, the Supreme Court has four vacancies and five more Judges will retire by the end of this year but the collegium headed by Chief Justice Bobde has not made even a single appointment to the Supreme Court. As per media reports, there is some deadlock in the collegium and it has not made a consensus on a few names of Chief Justices of High Courts who are eligible for elevation to the top court as per the seniority rule. Chief Justice Bobde will retire next month. The last time a Chief Justice of India retired without recommending a single appointment to the Supreme Court was in 2015 (during the tenure of Chief Justice H.L. Dattu) when there was an unprecedented deadlock between the Central Government and the judiciary on the issue of National Judicial Appointments Commission, popularly known as NJAC. After Chief Justice Bobde’s retirement, Justice N.V. Ramana is likely to become the Chief Justice of India as per the order of seniority.

It is not that brilliant women High Court Judges and lawyers are not available in the country. There are many brilliant women lawyers and Judges who, if elevated soon to the top court, can become the Chief Justice of India after a few years as per the seniority rule. The biggest issue is to include them in the seniority circle so that they could come to the top after a few years. I think this is a great opportunity for the collegium to give India its first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is not a difficult task. It requires a strong commitment to the cause of women’s empowerment in the judiciary. In addition to this, the Supreme Court needs more women Judges also. There should be at least four to five women Judges in the Supreme Court given the state of under-representation of women Judges in the country. The Court decides many important issues which can be properly adjudicated by the women Judges. Some brilliant women lawyers can also be considered for the Judgeship in the top court. There is no dearth of brilliant women lawyers in the country. Justice Indu Malhotra is the first woman advocate who was directly elevated to the Supreme Court. This trend of making appointments from the Bar needs to be continued in the future also. Some brilliant legal academics can also be considered for the Judgeship in the Supreme Court given the constitutional provision of appointments of “distinguished jurists” in the top court.

Notably, when it comes to the question of appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court from the High Courts, seniority and regional representation are also major criteria that the Supreme Court collegium considers but there is no such fixed rule and precedents are always there where Judges have been directly elevated to the Supreme Court by relaxing the seniority norm. It is not rocket science. If senior women Judges are not available, there are no written rules that stop the collegium to appoint a High Court Judge or a practicing lawyer to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the final choice of Judges depends on consensus within the collegium. If all the collegium members decide that it is time to recommend a woman Judge’s name for the Supreme Court Judgeship, they can do so and a woman Judge can be appointed to the Supreme Court at this time. So, all this depends on the willpower of the collegium which has a conclusive power in judicial appointments. The Central Government will have no option but to act on the collegium’s recommendation. And there is no reason to assume that the Central Government will not appreciate this idea that promotes women’s empowerment. So, now the ball is in the collegium’s court. I think the time has come when the Supreme Court collegium should give India a future woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Last year, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal had also said that there has never been a woman Chief Justice. It indicates that even the Government wants to see a woman as Chief Justice in the near future. Hope the learned Judges who are members of the collegium would understand the sentiments of the people and will make history to give India the first Chief Justice. No more delay please dear Judge-makers.


*LLM PhD LLD Advocate, Supreme Court of India, New Delhi.

[1] Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Assn. v. Union of India, (1993) 4 SCC 441

2 comments

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    What about equality for all sexes? what is the need to select a person on sex? The oldest democracy usa has never had a single woman chief justice after more than 200 years existence , whereas we are hardly 70 years after formation of the Nation.

    • Avatar

      Absolutely right. Judges are not elected but selected on the basis of merit. Merit alone should be the criteria for selection of Judges, that is why this institution survives and still people repose their faith in it. If Judges are appointed only to satisfy gender parity no sooner we will see it’s erosion.

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