Week of April 5, 2021

The Court permits Rohingya deportation, gets a new Chief Justice, and embraces artificial intelligence!

Apex Court Weekly is a weekly round-up of judgments, petitions, orders and notices as they develop at the Supreme Court of India (“the Court”). We also occasionally cover High Courts. We cover some stories that gather national attention and some that should. This update is written by Rahul Srivastava, J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School, and supported by the Cornell India Law Center.


The Court gets a new Chief Justice

The President has officially designated Justice N.V. Ramana as the 48th Chief Justice of India. Justice Ramana’s tenure will begin on April 24, 2021. The first in his family to become a lawyer, Justice Ramana was admitted to the Bar in 1983. As a lawyer, he practiced in Andhra Pradesh, specializing in a variety of topics. He also represented the Railways and Andhra Pradesh in court.  He was appointed to the Andhra Pradesh High Court as a judge in 2000 and was elevated to the Court in 2014. He will serve as Chief Justice until retirement at the age of 65. 

More than 50 staff test positive for COVID at the Court

Yes, you read that headline correctly. As the Court transitions to a change at the top, a COVID outbreak has broken out at the Court. Although the Court resumed limited physical hearings, Justices may be headed back to virtual hearings. So far, most of the outbreak is limited to the Registry. The Court is expected to announce restrictions and more stringent social distancing protocols. Hearings were postponed by an hour to sanitize courtrooms.


Rohingya refugees’ fate left to government

The Court declined to interfere with the government’s decision to deport Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from Myanmar fleeing persecution. The government had detained around 150 Rohingya refugees in Jammu and is in the process of deporting them back to Myanmar. 

Two refugees had petitioned the Court to order a release from custody and prevent deportation back to Myanmar. The petition asked the Court to read the principle of non-refoulment into the constitution’s guarantee of life and liberty. Non-refoulment would prevent the government from deporting refugees to the country they fled. 

However, the Chief Justice noted that India is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the State of Refugees, which binds member states to adhere to non-refoulment. Instead, the Chief Justice referred to the national security ramifications of having a porous border that permitted illegal immigration. Although the Court did not stop deportation, it held that the government could not deport the refugees without granting them their due process rights. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta noted that the refugees would not be deported until the Myanmar government confirmed their identity. There is no legislation in India that directly addresses refugees, leaving them to be categorized as “illegal immigrants”.

A refugee remarked that the Court had “signed our death warrant”.


Pick whatever faith you like

That’s what the Court said any adult can do. A petitioner sought the Court’s intervention in controlling “black magic, superstition, and religious conversion”. Numerous states have recently passed anti-religious conversion laws. During oral arguments, Justice Nariman remarked that he could not see any reason why an adult could not choose their religion. He referred to Article 25 of the constitution, which allows freedom to “propagate” any religion. Justice Nariman called the petition “publicity interest litigation”, a play on “public interest litigation.”

The Court to Mamata Banerjee: Go to your High Court first

Amidst a heated election campaign in West Bengal, a petition sought an independent CBI investigation into an alleged attack on the state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Ms. Banerjee alleged that she was attacked by “four-five men” soon after filing her nomination papers. Ms. Banerjee sustained injuries to her leg. The petition argued that the attack violated the idea of free election and sought stronger punishments for election-related violence. The Court asked the petitioners to approach the Calcutta High Court first. 


Artificial Intelligence part of the Court’s future

But won’t factor into decision-making, according to the Chief Justice. The Court launched SUPACE (“Supreme Portal for Assistance in Court Efficiency”) this week, a portal that will use machine learning to parse through the data the Court receives during case filing. AI may help the Court sort out the facts and issues of various cases before it, though Justice Rao expressed his doubts that AI could fully ever replace human lawyers and judges. Chief Justice Bobde noted that the AI will tailor its results to “the need of the case and the way the judge thinks.”

Government and the Court tussle over appointments

The government this week pointed blame at the Court and high courts for delays in judicial appointments. Responding to the Court’s query on the reasons for delay, the government noted that high court collegiums have not recommended appointments for 214 out of 410 judge vacancies (52% of vacancies). The Court asked the government why they were not following through on appointments recommended by the collegium more than a year ago. While we’re not sure which side is right on this one, we’ll take the bickering as a healthy sign of separation between two co-equal branches. There are five vacancies at the Court. Chief Justice Bobde is set to retire as the only Chief Justice who never appointed a Justice to the Court.