New Delhi: The second most senior judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, who is known for giving several landmark judgments including historic judgment that ended a colonial-era law that deemed homosexuality a crime – retired today on Thursday with Chief Justice NV Ramana describing him as a “lion of a judge” and the legal fraternity praising his legacy.
“I feel like I am losing one of the lions that guarded the judicial institution, someone known for his erudition, clarity and scholarly work. This institution will miss his knowledge and intellect… He was one of the pillars of our strong judicial system. He always stood for what is right,” the Chief Justice said in an emotional address at his farewell.
“I am little overwhelmed. I am finding it difficult to express my thoughts,” Chief Justice Ramana confessed.
On his last working day, Justice Nariman sat with the Chief Justice in court no. 1 of the Supreme Court, a tradition for retiring judges.
He described seven years of being a judge “grueling” as he had to read much more and wade through “piles of briefs”.
“I have enjoyed writing judgements though,” he said.
Justice Nariman supported lawyer Vikas Singh’s suggestion that like him, more direct appointees should be taken by the Supreme Court.
With Justice Nariman’s retirement the Supreme Court’s strength will be reduced to 25, with nine vacancies. With another judge set to retire later this month, there will be 10 spots to fill.
For around two years no judges have been appointed to the Supreme Court because of a lack of consensus among members of the collegium that selects judges. Former Chief Justice SA Bobde could not appoint any judge during his 18-month term.
Justice Nariman was Solicitor General before he was directly appointed to the Supreme Court in 2014.
The son of renowned lawyer Fali Nariman and a Harvard alum, Justice Nariman was 37 when the Supreme Court designated him senior lawyer.
The Chief Justice said Justice Nariman dealt with 13,565 cases.
At a time when the independence of the judiciary is under a shadow, Justice Nariman’s judgments stand out.
He struck down Section 66A of the IT Act that allowed the government to jail people over social media posts. He said the law infringed upon the right to free speech.
“The freedom of speech and the press is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy because public criticism is essential to the working of its institutions,” the judgment said.
In 2017, a majority judgment by him and two others held as unconstitutional the practice of instant Triple Talaq.
Justice Nariman was part of the majority on the Supreme Court bench that ruled that women between 10 and 50 years can’t be banned from the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.
When the case came up for review, he gave a dissenting verdict.
To stop custodial deaths, Justice Nariman directed the installing of CCTVs at police stations and the offices of agencies like the and National Investigation Agency.
His most recent judgement warned politicians to “wake up from their slumber” and remove criminal elements from politics.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, speaking at a virtual farewell for Justice Nariman shared that he was the first lawyer he briefed in the Supreme Court.
“Today is a very special day. Not only for us, but for me as well, as Justice Nariman was the first-ever counsel I briefed in the Supreme Court,” Mr Mehta said.
“I wish your Lordship a happy, healthy and fulfilling life ahead and in the third innings of his life,” the law officer said.
“Thank you, solicitor,” Justice Nariman replied.
Justice Nariman’s exit has once again put the spotlight on the unprecedented impasse within the Collegium over appointment of judges that has been there for nearly 22 months now. With his retirement, the Supreme Court will have only 25 judges against a sanctioned strength of 34 judges. Additionally, Justice Navin Sinha is set to retire on August 19, which will leave the Supreme Court with 10 vacancies to be filled.
To note, the last appointment made to the apex Court was in September 2019 and the earliest vacancy was created in November 2019 when former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi retired.