Kabir, by convention

Print edition : October 05, 2012

Justice Altamas Kabir at a workshop on the juvenile justice system, in Ranchi in July.-MANOB CHOWDHURY

Justice Altamas Kabir, who will be the new CJI, is known for his scrupulous adherence to the spirit of the law.

The retirement of Justice S.H. Kapadia on September 28 will clear the decks for the swearing-in of the senior-most judge in the Supreme Court, Justice Altamas Kabir, as the 39th Chief Justice of India. Justice Kapadia was the first Chief Justice of India to have been born after Independence, and Justice Kabir, born on July 19, 1948, will be the second from the post-Independence generation to assume the position.

Justice Kabir was enrolled as an advocate in 1973 and practised in the District Court and the Calcutta High Court, taking up both civil and criminal cases. He was appointed a judge in the Calcutta High Court on August 6, 1990. He became the Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court on March 1, 2005, and joined the Supreme Court as a judge on September 9, 2005.

By convention, the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court is appointed as the CJI, though this convention was broken twice, in 1973 and 1977, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. After the end of the Emergency in 1977, successive governments have followed this convention scrupulously.

Compared with Justice Kapadia, who served as the CJI for a little more than two years from May 12, 2010, Justice Kabir will have a tenure of just nine months; he will retire on July 19, 2013, on attaining the age of 65. Like his predecessor, Justice Kabir hails from a minority community, and is married to a Christian child rights activist. As a judge, he is known for his compassion and scrupulous adherence to the spirit of the law. Observers will watch with interest how his short tenure shapes and influences the Supreme Courts role in national affairs.

In an interesting paper published recently, the scholar Nicholas Robinson has pointed out that the power of the CJI, as the courts primary administrator, has expanded remarkably. According to him, there has been a shift of power within the judiciary, which has far-reaching consequences, and arguably this has arisen outside the Constitutions original vision.

Robinsons other findings are equally interesting. When it comes to Bench selection, the Chief Justice can potentially influence the outcome of cases through his ability to choose the judges who will sit on Benches hearing various cases. This, he says, has become easier as the court has grown from its original strength of eight judges to 31 today.

The CJIs influence as the member of the collegium of senior-most judges in the selection of new judges to the Supreme Court and in the transfer of High Court judges is considerable. Besides, the CJI approves case referrals from smaller to larger Benches, decides the timing of high-profile cases, and chooses which of the many petitions sent to the court qualify to be heard under public interest litigation. All these can make a CJI the most powerful person in the nations polity irrespective of the length of his tenure.

Justice Kabir belongs to an illustrious Muslim political family. His uncle Humayun Kabir was a well-known educationist, a close associate of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and a Union Minister under Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. Justice Kabirs father, Jehangir Kabir, was a reputed figure in the politics of West Bengal. He was a trade union leader, and a Minister in the Congress governments led by B.C. Roy and P.C. Sen in West Bengal.

Extremely courteous to members of the Bar, Justice Kabir often combines his sense of humour with his keenness to find simple judicial remedies to what appear to be difficult legal questions before him.

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