The four judges, the most senior members of the bench after the chief justice, abruptly left their courtrooms on Friday morning and called the first press conference by members of the usually solemn institution.
Led by judge Jasti Chelameswar, they delivered an unprecedented message to the journalists gathered in Delhi: that the conduct of India’s highest court was “not in order” and that “unless this institution is preserved, democracy can’t be protected in this country”.
The revolt against the chief justice, Dipak Misra, has been months in the making. It broke into the open in November, when he was accused of mishandling a matter relating to a former judge alleged to have offered to bribe members of the supreme court in a case Misra himself was presiding over.
Misra has not been accused of taking bribes but was fiercely criticised, including by senior lawyers, for repeatedly intervening to ensure only judges of his choice could hear the matter.
One case cited by the four justices on Friday was a request for an independent investigation into the death of judge BH Loya, who was overseeing a case involving murder allegations against Amit Shah, a leading figure in the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). Media reports in recent months have raised suspicions over Loya’s death.
Though politically charged cases have traditionally been overseen by the supreme court’s most senior judges, the request for an independent investigation into Loya’s death was assigned by Misra to a relatively junior member of the bench.
In a letter to Misra, which was released to the media on Friday, the four judges said: “There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned by the chief justice of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rationale for this assignment. This must be guarded against at all costs.”
Asked by journalists if the chief justice should be impeached, Chelameswar said: “Let the nation decide that.”
The judges were at pains not to accuse Misra of any specific wrongdoing nor criticise any specific judgments. Rather, their charge is that by breaking from the traditional procedures for allocating cases – which heavily emphasise seniority – he is allowing what they called “questions on the integrity of the institution” to fester.
Echoing criticism levelled at the court in past months, the Indian Express published an article on Friday morning by a senior lawyer, Dushyant Dave, highlighting instances where Misra had failed to allocate the most senior judges available for sensitive cases.
“It is important for this institution to ensure that an impression is not given to the public that the constitution of benches and allocation of matters is being done in a manner more palatable to the executive,” Dave wrote.
Chelameswar closed the dramatic press conference by saying: “We don’t want wise men saying 20 years from now that justice Chelameswar, [Ranjan] Gogoi, [Madan B] Lokur and Kurian Joseph sold their souls and didn’t do the right thing by our constitution.”
Alok Kumar, a senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said chief justices had earned the rancour of their colleagues in the past but Friday’s events were “beyond the pale”.
Misra, who was appointed chief justice by the Narendra Modi government in August, did not made any public remarks on Friday but is reportedly meeting with the Indian attorney general, who is also yet to comment.
The Indian supreme court is larger than its UK or US counterparts, accommodating up to 31 members whose ranks frequently change as judges choose to leave or reach the mandatory retirement age of 65.