Justice Ranjan Gogoi

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A brief biography

Dhananjay Mahapatra, As CJI, Justice Gogoi has to ‘discharge debt to the nation’, September 17, 2018: The Times of India

Seventeen and a half years ago, 46-year-old Ranjan Gogoi was appointed as a judge of Gauhati high court after 23 years as an advocate. When his father Kesab Chandra Gogoi, who was chief minister of Assam in 1982, died in August 1998, Gogoi had a lucrative legal practice. Gogoi senior had prophesied that his son would not enter politics, would continue as an advocate and that he had the métier to become the Chief Justice of India (CJI).

Each HC judge begins from the bottom of the seniority list. Only very few reach the CJI’s post. One may call it luck or destiny, even though an individual’s grey matter, hard work and perseverance make important contributions. When Gogoi became an HC judge, Justice A S Anand was the 29th CJI. On October 3, Justice Gogoi will take oath as the 46th CJI.

He will be the captain of judiciary till November 17, 2019. When an individual captains a national team, be it cricket or judiciary, he often finds the post to be lonely, as CJI Dipak Misra experienced early in his tenure. A good captain must share laurels for laudable work with his team members. But failures are orphans and the captain alone takes the jeers and criticism, as happens in life.

CJI-designate Gogoi will have his ‘life is like that’ moments during his captaincy. Any narration on Justice Gogoi would be incomplete without mentioning the unprecedented press conference of January 12 that featured the four seniormost Supreme Court judges — Justices J Chelameswar, Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph. It led to the filing of an impeachment notice against CJI Misra by Congress in Rajya Sabha.

Judges are super-sensitive about their reputation and dignity.

Rightly so, because attribution of motive to a judge causes irreversible fraying of public faith in the judiciary, which an overwhelming majority believes is the last bastion to get justice.

Justice Gogoi, as Gauhati HC judge, had given a detailed judgment on this issue while deciding a contempt case against vernacular daily ‘Ajir Dainik Batori’ [2008 (1) GLT 800]. He had said, “All we would ask is that those who criticise us will remember that, from the nature of our office, we cannot reply to their criticisms. We cannot enter into public controversy, still less into political controversy. We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication.” This explains why the CJI did not respond to the criticism aired during the January 12 presser.

“Public confidence in the judicial system is indispensable, it’s erosion is fatal, of course. Judges, by their own conduct, action and performance of duties must earn and enjoy public confidence and not by applying the rule of contempt,” he had said, but had warned that criticism of judges “must be dignified in language and content because crude expressions or manifestations are more capable of identification of the alleged wrong with the system as a whole”.

In the backdrop of this prudent narrative about a judge’s defencelessness against insinuations or allegations, let us recall what was said in the January 12 press conference. Justice Chelameswar, who was chief justice of Gauhati HC for nearly three years when Justice Gogoi was a judge, criticised the CJI for “arbitrarily” allocating a PIL seeking inquiry into the alleged suspicious death of judicial officer B H Loya.

Justifying the unprecedented presser, Justice Chelameswar said, “No wise man should say after 20 years that we (the four judges) had sold our souls and did not do anything about rectifying the problem (of arbitrary allotment of cases to junior judges).” Wish the judges had done a background search before jumping to this conclusion and fire shots in public at the CJI. Instances are dime a dozen about more important cases in the past being allotted to ‘junior judges’ in the SC. They did not stop to feel for the CJI, who had to suffer the ignominy of colleagues accusing him of arbitrariness in allocation of cases in silence.

Getting back to the 2008 judgment, Justice Gogoi had written, “When there appears some scheme and design to bring about results which must damage confidence in our judicial system and demoralise judges of the highest court by making malicious attacks, anyone interested in maintaining high standards of fearless, impartial and unbending justice will feel perturbed.” It is beyond us to juxtapose these wise words with the press conference.

At the presser, Justice Gogoi, in his characteristic brief but piercing style, had said, “It is about assignment of a case (Loya case). Whatever Justice Chelameswar said is enough. It is a discharge of debt to the nation and we have done it.”

Justice Gogoi had needed journalists to convey that he and his colleagues were discharging a “debt to the nation”. But he has a different approach in his SC courtroom, for he has banished reporters farthest from the judges’ dais to the visitors’ gallery. When any important case comes up for hearing before a bench headed by him, policemen go into a tizzy pushing away journalists.

As CJI from October 3, Justice Gogoi will realise that there are far more significant debts to the nation that he would be expected to discharge as captain of the judiciary. His recent formula — country needed “independent and sometimes noisy judges” — will come handy in achieving these goals.

First, the monstrous pendency of nearly three crore cases that is gnawing at the judiciary. Second, despite a three-year-old constitution bench judgement of the SC, memorandum of procedure for appointment of judges to the SC and HCs is yet to be finalised. Third, there is almost 40% vacancy in high courts and 20% in the Supreme Court.

We must not forget that Justice Gogoi displays judicial courage and took the bull by its horn in sensitive yet controversial issues like National Register of Citizens in Assam, laying down procedure for designation of senior advocates, setting up of special courts for expeditious completion of criminal case against politicians, much delayed appointment of Lokpal and his fearless approach towards a band of advocates who use PIL as a weapon to sharpen public opinion than help ameliorate the condition of the poor. We are sure Justice Gogoi will succeed in discharging the debt to the nation.

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