BIOGRAPHY OF CHIEF JUSTICE AJIT NATH RAY

Born on- 09th of January, 1912

Assumed Office- 26th of April, 1973

Retired on- 28th of January, 1977

Education-

  • Bachelors of Arts- Oriel College, Oxford
  • Masters of Arts- Presidency College, Calcutta

Previously

Judge of Supreme Court (01st of August, 1969 to 25th of April, 1973)

Chief Justice Ajit Nath Ray, was born on January 29th, 1912. Ray J pursued an M.A. in Modern History at the Presidency College in Calcutta. He also pursued a B.A. in Honours School of Modern History at Oriel College, a part of Oxford University.

Ray J practised at the Calcutta High Court after being called to the bar by the Society of Gray’s Inn in 1939. On August 1st, 1969, he was promoted to the Supreme Court’s rank of Judge, and on April 26th, 1973, he was appointed Chief Justice of India.

In contravention of the seniority principle, Ray J was elevated to Chief Justice by the Indira Gandhi administration, replacing two other senior judges of the Court as well as Justice Shelat, who was in line to hold the position. The “committed judiciary theory[1]” argument was developed at the time by Law Minister Mohan Kumaramangalam, who said that while choosing judges, the government was required to take into account judges’ philosophies and outlooks in addition to judicial integrity.

The seniority principle is an unwritten custom[2] that designates the Court’s senior-most Judge as Chief Justice. Since the seniority principle was developed in the 1950s, it has been defended as a means of preventing political meddling in the Chief Justice’s office. Due to her responsibility for assigning cases to judges and assembling benches, the Chief Justice performs a particularly significant role. For instance, the overall percentage of Special Leave Petitions admitted for regular hearings decreased[3] at the Ray Court. Furthermore, although the Court under Ray CJI was originally open-minded about admitting cases involving fundamental rights, there was a noticeable drop in the admission of these cases in 1974.

Seniority may not always guarantee merit, according to the seniority principle’s detractors. Seniority could potentially cause the Chief Justiceship to “revolve-door”.

The seniority principle is not used in the nomination of Chief Justices in other common law countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

Even the seniority concept, according to critics, cannot guarantee independence from political influence. They claim that judges and attorneys who were awarded judgeships thought about being named Chief Justice even in the immediate aftermath of Independence.

According to some, it has become more frequent for judges to be appointed strategically in the hope that the seniority convention will result in their rise to Chief Justice. The idea that the seniority principle is the greatest approach to guarantee judicial independence is undermined by this.

Justice Ray, who bore the brunt of this regrettable legacy, was widely seen as a political appointee and was well-known for handing down rulings that supported the goals of the ruling party. His judgements, however, exhibit extraordinary clarity of thinking, structural integrity, and conciseness.

Justice Beg, nominated by the government of Indira Gandhi, succeeded Chief Justice Ray after he retired in 1977. Justice Khanna, who had been the lone dissenting vote in the 1976 case ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla[4], had been Justice Khanna’s predecessor. When Morarji Desai was elected prime minister, the seniority rule was reinstated.

Important Judgements

The petitioners in the famous Court judgement Kesavananda Bharti v. the State of Kerala, 1973[5], who represented landowners and other people with significant property, contested Parliament’s unrestricted ability to modify the Constitution by Article 368[6]. Whether there were any implicit restrictions on Parliament’s amending authority was the main issue that came up. The challenge was heard by a 13-judge bench, with 7 judges voting in favour and 6 voting against. The majority argued that while Parliament had the authority to change the Constitution, it was not allowed to do so in a way that nullified the fundamental provisions of the document. The “Basic Structure Doctrine[7]” was the name given to this.

Ray J penned a sharp yet critical opposition. According to Justice Ray, Parliament has unrestricted authority to modify the Constitution.

The following day, he was named the 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by the Indira Gandhi administration, likely in response to its displeasure with the Kesavananda ruling.

Additionally well recognised is Chief Justice Ray for the majority ruling in the ADM Jabalpur case. Following the government of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency in 1975, several politicians and activists were detained by the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971[8]. The detention of the detainees was contested because it infringed their fundamental right to personal liberty, which is a component of their right to life under Article 21[9] of the Indian Constitution of 1950. In his ruling, Ray CJI noted that if Article 21 rights are suspended by a Presidential Order by Article 359[10], they cannot be enforced.


[1] A Study in Executive – Judicial Conflict: The Indian Case- https://www.jstor.org/stable/2644233

[2] Book- Decision Making in the Supreme Court of India- A Jurimetrics Study

[3] Book- The Supreme Court under strain: the challenge of arrears

[4] 1976 AIR 1207, 1976 SCR 172 (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1735815/)

[5] 1973 4 SCC 225; AIR 1973 SC 1461 (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/257876/)

[6] Indian Kanoon (Article 368 of the Indian Constitution)- https://indiankanoon.org/doc/594125/

[7] Constitution Net- https://constitutionnet.org/vl/item/basic-structure-indian-constitution

[8] Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971

[9] Indian Kanoon (Article 21 of the Indian Constitution)- https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1199182/

[10] Indian Kanoon (Article 359 of the Indian Constitution)- https://indiankanoon.org/doc/493040/

Image Source: Economic Times

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