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All you need to know about CJI-designate Ramana

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Justice NV Ramana will succeed SA Bobde as the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) on Saturday. His tenure will be until August 26, 2022. Here is all you need to know about Ramana, who will be the first judge from the Andhra Pradesh high court to become the CJI:

From student leader to CJI

Ramana, 63, was born to a family of farmers at Ponnavaram village in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district. He fought for civil liberties during the Emergency and lost an academic year. Ramana also participated in the Jai Andhra movement for a separate Andhra state in the 1970s because of alleged injustices meted out to the people of the Coastal and Rayalaseema regions. Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu was among the other proponents of the movement.

Ramana worked as a journalist from 1979 to 1980 and reported on political and legal matters for the Eenadu newspaper. He enrolled as an advocate in 1983 and specialised in constitutional, criminal, service, and inter-state river laws at the Andhra Pradesh high court. He was appointed as a permanent judge of the high court in 2000. Justice Ramana was elevated as chief justice of the Delhi high court in 2013 and to the Supreme Court a year later.

YS Jagan Mohan Reddy versus Ramana

Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has accused Ramana of influencing the judges of the high court to stall his government’s policies. He also blamed Ramana for stopping investigations into certain dubious land deals in Amaravati since his two daughters were also allegedly involved in them. In October 2020, Reddy wrote a letter to Bobde and accused Ramana of also trying to destabilise his government. A month later, Bobde asked Reddy to put all his allegations in the form of an affidavit. Reddy did so as a confidential in-house inquiry was ordered. The probe concluded with the dismissal of Reddy’s complaint. On March 24, the Supreme Court website put up a one-page note about the dismissal. On the same day, Bobde designated Ramana as his successor and sent his recommendation to the Union law ministry.

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Ramana as a judge

He is seen as a conventional judge, who is restrained in his speech. He is known to talk less and for clarity of thoughts in his orders and judgments and adhering to the principle of judicial discipline and the rule of precedent. Ramana has been a part of several landmark judgments, underscoring constitutional rights, democratic values, and accountability. In his judgments in cases of Anuradha Bhasin and the Foundation for Media Professionals, he ruled that access to the internet is a fundamental right by extension while pulling the government up for the telecommunications blackout in Jammu & Kashmir after the nullification of the region’s semi-autonomous status. The judgments also laid down certain parameters on curfews. They held that Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which bans assemblies of over five people, cannot be used to suppress the legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights. Similarly, as part of a five-judge bench in Subash Chandra Agarwal’s case, Ramana emphasised that the right to information and right to privacy are on an equal footing. In Swaraj Abhiyan v Union of India, Ramana stressed the need for cooperative federalism in the implementation of the National Food Security Act.

Ramana delivered the 2019 verdict related to the Karnataka assembly, clarifying the legal position that disqualification under the Tenth Schedule for defection could not operate as a bar for contesting elections again. Simultaneously, he lamented “a growing trend of the Speaker acting against the constitutional duty of being neutral” and implored presiding officers to check horse-trading and corrupt practices associated with defection and change of loyalty for the lure of office or other wrong reasons. Similarly, in the Shiv Sena Vs Union of India case, Ramana followed the precedent of ordering an immediate floor test in the Maharashtra assembly to prevent horse-trading in 2019. In another significant case, a bench that included Ramana, passed directives to expedite criminal investigations and trials involving lawmakers.

Ramana in January ordered fixing a notional income for non-earning homemakers in insurance claim cases. He called this a step towards the constitutional vision of social equality and ensuring the dignity of life for all individuals. In a case involving an accused with mental illness facing the gallows, Ramana wrote: “The right to dignity of an accused does not dry out with the judges’ ink, rather, it subsists well beyond the prison gates and operates until his last breath.” Ramana also ruled in favour of homebuyers waiting for the delivery of their flats. In a 2018 judgment, he said builders must deliver them within a reasonable time even in the absence of a specified contractual clause.

Challenges ahead

Ramana has been the executive chairman of the National Legal Services Authority and has often spoken about his priorities. He has underlined how India has had to grapple with the twin problem of poverty and access to justice. For him, justice is the cornerstone of ensuring the protection of fundamental rights. Ramana has called legal aid for the poor, especially women and children among them, as his top priority and appealed to the lawyers to come forward to lend a helping hand to those who cannot afford litigation expenses. Ramana has also sought to strengthen judicial infrastructure as one of the most important tools for clearing the massive backlog of cases.

Ramana has avoided talking about cases that he has dealt with or appointments of judges although he has been a part of the Supreme Court collegium for over a year. Not a single judge was appointed over Bobde’s 14-month tenure. All eyes will be on Ramana as to when the vacancies of six judges are filled. Justices Rohinton F Nariman, Ashok Bhushan, and Navin Sinha are also due to retire by the end of 2021. Four more judges of the top court will retire before justice Ramana demits office. There will be 13 vacancies in the Supreme Court during Ramana’s tenure. The vacancies of high court judges have also risen to 411 out of 1,080. Ramana will have to streamline the appointment process as the pendency in the high courts has gone beyond five million cases.