The Supreme Court of India

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The Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court of India

The Supreme Court of India, the apex judicial body, is a federal court, the highest court of appeal, and the guardian of the constitution. Established as the highest judicial authority under the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court plays a pivotal role in interpreting the law, safeguarding fundamental rights, and ensuring the rule of law prevails across the nation. This article of NEXT IAS aims to study in detail the Supreme Court, including its history, constitutional provisions, composition, powers, jurisdiction, and other related aspects.

The Supreme Court of India is the apex court of India under the integrated judicial system established by the Constitution of India.

It has been envisaged as:

  • a Federal Court
  • The highest court of appeal in India
  • The guarantor of Fundamental Rights
  • The guardian of the Constitution of India and
  • The final interpreter of the Constitution of India.
Supreme Court of India

Inspired by the Government of India Act of 1935, the Indian Constitution has established an integrated judicial system with a three-tier structure:

  • The Supreme Court
  • The High Courts
  • The Subordinate Courts (District Courts, and other Lower Courts)

This single system of courts enforces both Central and State Laws across the country.

Articles 124 to 147 in Part V of the Indian Constitution deal with the provisions related to the Supreme Court of India.

The constitutional provisions mentioned under these articles deal with the organization, independence, jurisdiction, powers, and procedures of the SC.

  • The Parliament is also authorized to regulate these provisions.
  • Originally, the strength of the Supreme Court was fixed at 8 (1 Chief Justice and 7 other judges).
  • The Constitution of India empowers the Parliament to increase or decrease the number of judges of the SC.
    • Accordingly, the Parliament passes several Acts subsequently to increase the number of other judges of the SC.
  • At present, the SC consists of 34 judges (1 Chief Justice and 33 other judges).

The Chief Justice and other judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President as can be seen in the following sections.

The Chief Justice is appointed by the President after consultation with such judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts as he deems necessary.

As per the Second Judges Case (1993), the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court should alone be appointed as the Chief Justice of India.

  • The other judges are appointed by the President after consultation with the Chief Justice and such other judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts as he deems necessary.
  • The consultation with the Chief Justice is obligatory in the case of the appointment of a judge other than the Chief Justice.
  • As per the Second Judges Case (1993), consultation with the Chief Justice means concurrence and advice tendered by the Chief Justice is binding on the President.
  • As per the Third Judges Case (1998), the Chief Justice should consult a collegium of 4 senior-most judges of the Supreme Court before recommending the name to the President.
    • The recommendations made by the Chief Justice, without consulting the collegium, are not binding on the President.

A person to be appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court should have the following qualifications:

  • He/she should be a citizen of India.
  • He/she should:
    • have been a judge of a High Court (or High Courts in succession) for 5 years; OR
    • have been an advocate of a High Court (or High Courts in succession) for 10 years, OR
    • be a distinguished jurist in the opinion of the President of India.
Note: The Constitution has not prescribed a minimum age for appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court.
  • The Chief Justice of India and the Judges make and subscribe to an oath or affirmation before the President or some person appointed by him for this purpose.
  • In his/her oath, he/she swears:
    • to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India.
    • to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India.
    • to duly and faithfully and to the best of his ability, knowledge, and judgment perform the duties of the office without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.
    • to uphold the Constitution and the laws.

The salaries, allowances, privileges, leave, and pension of the judges of the Supreme Court are determined by the Parliament.

  • They cannot be varied to their disadvantage after their appointment except during a Financial Emergency.

The Constitution has not fixed the tenure of a judge of the Supreme Court. However, the Constitution contains the following three provisions in this regard:

  • He/she holds office until he attains the age of 65 years.
    • Any question regarding his/her age is to be determined by such authority and in such manner as provided by Parliament.
  • He/she can resign from his office by writing to the President.
  • He/she can be removed from his office by the President on the recommendation of the Parliament.
  • A judge of the Supreme Court can be removed from his/her office by an order of the President.
  • They can be removed on the following two grounds:
    • proved misbehaviour
    • incapacity
  • The procedure relating to the removal of a judge of the SC is regulated by the Judges Enquiry Act (1968).
  • As per the Act, the process of removal goes as follows:
    • A removal motion signed by 100 members in the case of Lok Sabha or 50 members in the case of Rajya Sabha is to be given to the Speaker/Chairman.
      • The Speaker/Chairman may admit the motion or refuse to admit it.
    • If the motion is admitted, then the Speaker/Chairman constitutes a three-member committee to investigate the charges. The Committee consists of:
      • the Chief Justice of India or a Judge of the SC,
      • a Chief Justice of a High Court, and
      • a distinguished jurist.
    • If the committee finds the judge guilty of the charges, then both the Houses of Parliament can take up the motion for consideration.
      • The motion must be passed by both Houses of Parliament with a Special Majority (50% of the total membership of the House + two-thirds of the members present and voting).
    • Once passed by both Houses of Parliament, an address is presented to the President.
    • Finally, the President passes an order, removing the judge.
Note: No judge of the Supreme Court has been impeached so far.

The President of India can appoint a judge of the Supreme Court as acting Chief Justice of India when:

  • the office of Chief Justice of India is vacant, or
  • the Chief Justice of India is temporarily absent, or
  • the Chief Justice of India is unable to perform the duties of his office.
  • When there is a lack of quorum of permanent judges to hold or continue any session of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of India can appoint a judge of the High Court (who is duly qualified for appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court) as an Ad Hoc judge of the SC for a temporary period.
  • The Chief Justice of India can do so only after consultation with the Chief Justice of the High Court concerned and with the previous consent of the President.
  • While performing the duties, the Ad Hoc Judge enjoys all the jurisdictions, powers, and privileges of the judge of the SC.
  • The Chief Justice of India can request a retired judge of the Supreme Court or a retired judge of a High Court (who is duly qualified for appointment as a judge of the SC) to act as a judge of the SC for a temporary period.
  • The Chief Justice of India can do so with the previous consent of the President and of the person to be appointed.
  • Such a judge is entitled to such allowances as determined by the President.
  • Also, he/she enjoys all the jurisdiction, powers, and privileges of a judge of the SC.
    • But, he will not be deemed to be a judge of the SC.
  • The Supreme Court can make rules for regulating the practice and procedure of the Court with the approval of the President.
  • As per the current procedure of the Supreme Court:
    • The Constitutional cases or references made by the President under Article 143 are decided by a Bench consisting of at least 5 judges.
    • All other cases are decided by single judges and division benches.
  • The SC delivers its judgments by the open court.
  • All judgments delivered by the SC are done by the majority vote.
    • However, if differing, then judges can give dissenting judgments or opinions.

The extensive jurisdiction and powers of the Supreme Court, as conferred by the Constitution of India, can be classified into the following categories:

  • As a federal court, the Supreme Court decides disputes between different units of the Indian Federation, including any dispute:
    • Between the Center and one or more states; or
    • Between the Center and one or more states on one side and one or more other states on the other side; or
    • Between two or more states
  • This jurisdiction of the SC is exclusive and original:
    • Exclusive: means no other court can decide such disputes.
    • Original: means the SC has the power to hear such disputes in the first instance, not by way of appeal.
  • The Supreme Court is empowered to issue writs for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights of an aggrieved citizen.
  • This jurisdiction of the SC is original but not exclusive:
    • Original: because an aggrieved citizen can directly go to the SC, not necessarily by way of appeal.
    • Not Exclusive: because the High Courts are also empowered to issue writs for enforcement of Fundamental Rights.

Read our Detailed article on Writ Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

  • The Supreme Court is primarily a court of appeal and hears appeals against the judgments of High Courts.
  • The Appellate Jurisdiction of the SC can be classified under the following four heads:

Appeals in Constitutional Matters

An appeal can be made to the Supreme Court against the judgment of the High Court if the High Court certifies that the case involves a substantial question of law that requires interpretation of the Constitution.

Appeals in Civil Matters

  • An appeal lies to the Supreme Court from any judgment of a High Court if the High Court certifies that:
    • the case involves a substantial question of law of general importance.
    • the question needs to be decided by the SC.

Appeals in Criminal Matters

  • An appeal can be made to the Supreme Court against the judgment of the High Court in the following three situations:
    • if the High Court has on appeal, reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him/her to imprisonment of life or for 10 years.
    • if the High Court has taken before itself any case from any subordinate court, convicted the accused person, and sentenced him to imprisonment for life or for 10 years.
    • if the High Court certifies that the case is fit for appeal to the SC.
  • The following two points are to be noted w.r.t. the above provisions:
    • In the first two cases, an appeal lies to the SC as a matter of right i.e. without any certificate of the High Court.
    • If the High Court has reversed the order of conviction and has ordered the acquittal of the accused, there is no right to appeal to the SC.

Appeal by Special Leave

  • The Supreme Court is authorized to grant in its discretion Special Leave to Appeal from any judgment in any matter passed by any court or tribunal in the country, except the military tribunal or the martial court.
  • This provision contains 4 aspects:
    • It is a discretionary power and hence cannot be claimed as a matter of right.
    • It can be granted in any judgment whether final or interlocutory.
    • It may be related to any matter – constitutional, civil, criminal, income-tax, labor, revenue, advocates, etc.
    • It can be granted against any court or tribunal (except a military court) and not necessarily against a High Court.
  • Thus, the scope of this provision is very wide and it vests the Supreme Court with a plenary jurisdiction to hear appeals.
  • Article 143 authorizes the President of India to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court in the following 2 categories of matters:
    • On any question of law or fact of public importance that has arisen or is likely to arise.
      • In this case, the SC may tender or may refuse to tender its opinion to the President.
    • On any dispute arising out of any pre-Constitution treaty, agreements, etc.
      • In this case, the SC must tender its opinion to the President.
  • In both cases, the opinion tendered by the SC is only advisory and not a judicial pronouncement.
    • Hence, they are not binding on the President.

As a Court of Record, the Supreme Court has the following 2 powers:

  • the judgments, proceedings, and acts of the Supreme Court are recorded for perpetual memory and testimony. These records are admitted to be of evidentiary value and cannot be questioned when produced before any court.
    • Thus, these judgments are recognized as legal precedents and legal references.
  • it has the power to punish for contempt not only of itself but also of High Courts, Subordinate Courts, and Tribunals functioning in the entire country.
  • It refers to the power of the Supreme Court to examine the constitutionality of legislative acts and executive orders of both the Central and the State Governments.
    • If, on examination, they are found to be violative of the Constitution, they will be declared illegal, unconstitutional, null, and void by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has the power to review any judgment pronounced or order made by it.

The Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution of India. In this capacity, it has the power to give final interpretation to the spirit and content of the provisions of the constitution and the verbiage used therein.

The numerous other powers of the Supreme Court can be seen as follows:

  • It decides the disputes regarding the election of President and Vice-President.
    • In this regard, it has the original, exclusive, and final authority.
  • It enquires into the conduct and behavior of the Chairman and members of UPSC, SPSC, or JSPSC on a reference made by the President.
  • It is authorized to withdraw the cases pending before the High Courts and dispose them by itself.
  • It can transfer a case or appeal pending before one High Court to another High Court.
  • Its law is binding on all courts in India
  • Its decree or order is enforceable throughout the country.
  • It has the power of judicial superintendence and control over all the courts and tribunals functioning in the entire country.
Key Facts about Supreme Court’s Jurisdiction and Powers

– The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and powers with respect to matters in the Union List can be enlarged by the Parliament.

– The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and powers with respect to other matters can be enlarged by a special agreement between the Centre and the States.

The Constitution has made the following provisions to safeguard and ensure the independent and impartial functioning of the Supreme Court:

  • Mode of Appointment – The judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President in consultation with the members of the judiciary itself. This ensures that the judicial appointments are not based on any political or practical considerations.
  • Security of Tenure – The judges of the Supreme Court have been given security of tenure. They can be removed by the President only in the manner and on the grounds mentioned in the Constitution.
  • Fixed Service Conditions – The service conditions of the judges of the Supreme Court cannot be changed to their disadvantage after their appointment, except during a Financial Emergency.
  • Expenses Charged on Consolidated Fund – The salaries, allowances, pensions of judges, and all other expenses of the Supreme Court are charged to the Consolidated Fund of India, and hence are non-votable by the Parliament.
  • Bar on Parliamentary Interference – The conduct of judges of the Supreme Court in the discharge of their duties cannot be discussed in Parliament or State Legislature, except when an impeachment motion is under consideration by the Parliament.
  • Ban on Post-Retirement Practice – The retired judges of the Supreme Court are prohibited from pleading or acting in any court or before any authority within the territory of India. This ensures that they do not favor anyone in the hope of future favor.
  • Power to Punish for its Contempt – The Supreme Court can punish any person for its contempt. Thus, its actions and decisions cannot be criticized and opposed by anybody.
  • Freedom to Appoint its Staff – The Chief Justice of India can appoint officers and servants of the Supreme Court and prescribe their service conditions, without any interference from the Executive.
  • Protection of Jurisdiction – The Parliament is not authorized to curtail the jurisdiction and powers of the Supreme Court. However, the Parliament can extend the same.
Indian Supreme CourtAmerican Supreme Court
– Its original jurisdiction is confined to federal cases.– Its original jurisdiction covers not only federal cases but also cases relating to naval forces, maritime activities, etc.
– Its appellate jurisdiction covers constitutional, civil, and criminal cases.– Its appellate jurisdiction is confined to constitutional cases only.
– It has a very wide discretion to grant special leave to appeal in any matter against the judgment of any court or tribunal (except the military).– It has no such plenary power.
– It has advisory jurisdiction.– It has no advisory jurisdiction.
– Its scope of judicial review is limited.– Its scope of judicial review is very wide.
– It defends the rights of the citizen according to the ‘Procedure Established by Law’.– It defends the rights of the citizen according to the ‘Due Process of Law’.
– Its jurisdiction and powers can be enlarged by Parliament.– Its jurisdiction and powers are limited to that conferred by the Constitution.
– It has the power of judicial superintendence and control over the State High Courts due to the integrated judicial system.– It has no such power due to a double (or separated) judicial system.

The Supreme Court of India stands as the pinnacle of India’s judicial system, embodying the essence of justice, independence, and constitutional supremacy. It serves as the ultimate guardian of the Constitution, ensuring the rule of law and upholding the rights of all citizens. As India continues to evolve, the Supreme Court’s role will continue to remain critical in navigating the legal landscape and shaping the nation’s future.

Contempt of Court refers to any acts or omissions that impede the functioning of a court of law in any manner.

– In India, the procedures and punishments related to contempt of courts are regulated by the Contempt of Courts Act of 1971.

– As per the Act, contempt of courts can be of 2 types:

a. Civil Contempt: It refers to:
1. Wilful disobedience to any judgment, order, writ, or other process of a court; or
2. Wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court

b. Criminal Contempt: It refers to the publication of any matter or doing an act that:
a. scandalizes or lowers the authority of a court; or
b. prejudices or interferes with the due course of a judicial proceeding; or
c. interferes or obstructs the administration of justice in any other manner.

How many judges are there in the Supreme Court?

At present, the Supreme Court consists of 34 judges (1 Chief Justice and 33 other judges).

When was the Supreme Court of India established?

The Supreme Court of India was established on January 28, 1950, two days after India became a republic with the adoption of its Constitution on January 26, 1950.

Who can remove the Judges of the Supreme Court in India?

The President of India can remove the Judges of the Supreme Court in India.

Where is the Supreme Court of India located?

The Supreme Court of India is located in New Delhi.


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