President Ram Nath Kovind today appointed Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana, the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court as the Chief Justice of India (CJI). Justice NV Ramana will succeed the current Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde as the 48th CJI. He will take over as the top judge on April 24, a day after outgoing-CJI Bobde retires, and will remain in office till August 26, 2022.
On March 24, outgoing CJI Bobde followed convention and recommended Justice Ramana, the senior-most judge after him, as his successor. The recommendation followed shortly after an in-house committee dismissed Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy's complaint against Justice Ramana in connection with the Amravati land scam.
Inheritance of matters
When Justice Ramana takes over the country's top constitutional court, there are at least nine key issues that need consideration under his watch. Justice Ramana will have to tackle the rising vacancies in court. With CJI Bobde's retirement, the Supreme Court will be short of five judges for its full-strength of 34 judges. Four more judges are set to retire this year, leading to several changes in the composition of constitution bench matters.
The adjudication of the review plea by a nine-judge bench in the Sabarimala issue (where a five-judge bench allowed women of all ages to enter the sanctum sanctorum), the constitutionality of the revocation of the special status accorded to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the constitutional validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act are a few key issues that need to be heard by the apex court.
Activist, Journalist, Lawyer, Judge
Justice Ramana, a first-generation lawyer hailing from a village in Andhra Pradesh, rose through the ranks to reach the highest echelons of the judiciary. Starting out as an activist, Justice Ramana worked as a journalist for two years with a regional Telugu paper before he donned the black robes in 1983.
Speaking at a book release, Justice Ramana recalled the personal impact of the Emergency and the lessons it taught him about the "human tragedies of hunger, pain and suffering". The judge also narrated an incident where he narrowly escaped being arrested from a public meeting he was going to preside on civil liberties on June 25, 1975—the day former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency.
"Getting closer to the venue, I observed that people were running in panic. One of my close friends…informed that the police were arresting people. He took me to the outskirts and informed me that the government was going to proclaim an Emergency. We both took a lorry, travelled two-three hours and then walked all night to reach my maternal aunt's house with ₹10 in my hand... In hindsight, my father should have given some more extra money," Justice Ramana had said recalling the event.
According to his profile on the Supreme Court website, Justice Ramana was born in an agricultural family but enrolled as an advocate on February 10, 1983. He practised primarily at the state high court and represented the government on several fronts.
On June 27, 2000, he was appointed as a Permanent Judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court and became its Acting Chief Justice 13 years later. Justice Ramana was appointed as the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court in September 2013 and was elevated as a supreme court judge in February 2014.
Access to the internet; justice and transparency in the CJI office
During his seven-year tenure as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Ramana has been part of close to 403 judgments. He has issued guidelines on fast-tracking of all criminal trials against sitting and former legislators; adjudicated on issues pertaining to mental illness; struck down tribunal rules as envisaged in the amended Finance Act, 2017 and many more.
In a compensation matter, Justice Ramana gave a boost to women's dignity and their rights when he observed that the value of a homemaker was not less than that of her office-going husband. "Taking into account the gendered nature of housework, with an overwhelming percentage of women being engaged in the same as compared to men, the fixing of notional income of a homemaker attains special significance. It becomes a recognition of the work, labour and sacrifices of homemakers and a reflection of changing attitudes," Justice Ramana observed.
On January 10, 2020, Justice Ramana ended one of the longest internet shutdowns in the world when the bench led by him restored internet in the Kashmir valley.
On a plea filed by Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin, seeking restoration of the Internet, Justice Ramana observed that access to the Internet was "constitutionally protected" and indefinite suspension of high-speed was "impermissible". In a connected matter—a plea filed by Freedom of Media Professionals challenged the ban on high-speed internet—the bench on May 11, 2020, constituted a three-member committee to review the prevailing circumstances and determine the necessity of the continuation of the internet restrictions in the valley.
In a landmark verdict, a bench led by Justice Ramana in Md. Anwar ruled that an accused must prove that he/she is suffering from a serious enough mental illness or infirmity that affects their ability to distinguish from right or wrong. In another landmark order, the bench led by Justice Ramana in April 2019 ruled that post-conviction, severe mental illness would be a mitigating factor while deciding appeals for commutation of the death penalty.
In November 2019, Justice Ramana was part of the five-judge constitution bench which ruled that the office of the CJI falls under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. However, Justice Ramana in a separate but concurring opinion observed that "right to information should not be allowed to be used as a tool of surveillance to scuttle effective functioning of the judiciary."
In October 2020, in an unprecedented move, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy had written to CJI Bobde where he alleged that some judges of the Andhra Pradesh High Court had a "nexus with the Supreme Court judge and the Telugu Desam Party and displayed animosity towards [his] government and him".
For the first time in independent India, a state chief minister levelled corruption charges against a sitting supreme court judge. Among others, Reddy specifically referred to the Amravati land scam in which Justice Ramana's daughters have been named as accused in the FIR. The Supreme Court on November 25 lifted the gag order imposed on the media by the Andhra Pradesh High Court and stayed further investigation.
Reddy then referred to an opinion Justice Ramana gave the CJI in 2017 about the suitability of certain judges recommended for the Andhra Pradesh high court. Justice Ramana's opinion was allegedly identical to that of Chandrababu Naidu when he was chief minister. "Sri Justice N.V Ramana has been influencing the sittings of the High Court including the roster of a few Honourable Judges and instances of how matters important to Telugu Desam Party have been allocated to a few Honourable Judges…," Reddy told CJI Bobde. Reddy added that he has annexed documents proving the "nexus" between Justice Ramana, TDP, and a few judges of the high court.
Reddy's critics however hit back saying he was responding to Justice Ramana's ruling on fast-tracking cases pertaining to sitting politicians.
This was however not the first time Justice Ramana was accused of malpractice. In 2013, a plea was filed in the supreme court seeking the removal of the newly elevated top court judge. In their plea, advocates M. Manohar Reddy and M.V. Narasimha Reddy had alleged that Justice Ramana had suppressed information about a pending criminal case against him.
Dismissing the plea, the Supreme Court had observed that the plea was filed as a ruse to malign a judge. The top court had said one could not suppress information they did not have.
"This writ petition professed to have been filed in public interest is, in our view, but a ruse to malign respondent No.3. In his report to the Chief Justice of India the (then) Chief Justice, Andhra Pradesh High Court, had made the following comment: The incident occurred almost 30 years ago. The case against Justice Ramana was withdrawn almost 10 years ago. That it should be raked up now is a little inexplicable," the division bench had ruled.