The Supreme Court plays a unique role in the scheme of Constitutional government in the country as the highest appellate judicial authority and the final interpreter of the Constitution as well as the guardian of our Fundamental Rights. Although the Constitution establishes a Federal System of Government, unlike many other countries with Federal Constitutions, India has a single judicial system which has brought about not only jurisdictional unity, but also the establishment of a single judicial cadre, as it were, for the whole country. With the Supreme Court at its apex, the Indian Judiciary is a fully integrated system under which the writ of the Supreme Court runs not only all over the country—in Central, State and local areas—but also within all fields of law—Constitutional, civil and criminal.
The Constitution envisages an independent Supreme Court. The independence of the judges is ensured by the following provisions (Article 124):
(1) Every judge of the Supreme Court is appointed by the President of India after consultation with such judges of the Supreme Court and of High Courts of the States as the President may deem necessary for the purpose. But in the appointment of a judge, other than a Chief Justice, consultation with the Chief Justice of India by the President is obligatory.
(2) The elimination of politics in the appointment of judges is further achieved by prescribing the minimum qualifications in the Constitution itself.
(3) A judge of the Supreme Court, once appointed, holds office until he completes the age of sixty-five years.
(4) A retired judge is prohibited from practising law before any court in India.
(5) A Supreme Court judge can be removed from office by an order of the President only on the grounds of proved misbehaviour or incapacity after a resolution for the purpose is passed by both Houses of Parliament supported by a majority of the total membership of the House and a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting.
(6) The conditions of service of a judge cannot be altered to his disadvantage after his appointment.
(7) The independence of the judges is further safeguarded by making all their actions and decisions taken in their official capacity, immune from criticism and also providing for an establishment over which the Court has complete control.
Qualifications : Article 124(3) provides for the qualifications required for appointment as a Judge of the Supreme Court. The qualifications are :
(a) The person should be a citizen of India; and
(b) He/She should have been for at least five years a Judge of a High Court or of two or more such Courts in succession; or
(c) He/She has been for at least ten years an advocate of a High Court or of two or more such courts in succession; or
(d) He/She is, in the opinion of the President, a distinguished jurist.
There is no minimum age prescribed for being appointed as Judge of a Supreme Court.
Tenure : A person appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court holds office until he attains the age of sixty-five years, provided that
(a) A judge may, by writing under his hand addressed to the President, resign his office prior to attainment of age of sixty-five years; Or
(b) A judge may be removed from his office by an order of the President passed after an address by each House of Parliament supported by a majority of the total membership of that House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of the House present and voting has been presented to the President in the same session for such removal on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.
Jurisdiction : The Supreme Court enjoys three types of jurisdiction—original, appellate and advisory. The Supreme Court has exclusive original jurisdiction in any dispute between (a) the Government of India and one or more States; or (b) between the Government of India and any State or States on the one side and one or more States on the other; or (c) between two or more States. The Court has four types of appellate jurisdictions: Constitutional, civil, criminal and special. In any case which involves an interpretation of the Constitution, the appellate jurisdiction of the Court can be invoked. Further, in civil cases the Court’s jurisdiction can be invoked if the High Court certifies that the case involves a substantial question of law of general importance. In the criminal field, the jurisdiction of the Court can be invoked only if a High Court has on appeal reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him to death, or has withdrawn for trial before itself any case from any court subordinate to its authority and has in such trial convicted the accused person and sentenced him to death, or certifies that the case is a fit one for appeal to the Supreme Court.
Under Article 136 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is empowered to entertain special appeals in its discretion from any judgment or order in any case passed by any court or tribunal in India. This is a kind of extraordinary power which the Supreme Court as the highest court of the land is entitled to make use of, in the interest of justice. The Supreme Court may also give its advice to the President on a question of law or fact of public importance, as and when the President refers such a matter to the Court.
The law, declared by the Supreme Court through its decisions, is binding on all courts in the country. Further, in the exercise of its jurisdiction, the Supreme Court is authorised to pass appropriate decrees or orders in the interests of justice. Such decrees and orders are enforceable throughout the territory of India. It has also the power to secure the attendance before it of any person within the country or order the discovery and production of any documents, or the investigation or punishment of any contempt of itself.
Thus, the Supreme Court has a very important role to perform under the Constitution. As the final interpreter of the Constitution, its power embraces not only the interpretation of the Constitution, but also that of the laws of the Union Government, the States and the local authorities. Under its original jurisdiction, it finally settles all disputes between the Union and the States or those between the States themselves. Its appellate jurisdiction embraces not only Constitutional but also civil and criminal matters. And through the exercise of its power to grant special leave to appeal, it is competent to review any decision by any court or tribunal in the country. It is also empowered, under certain conditions, to give advice to the President.
The law declared by the Supreme Court is binding on any court in India. Further, it has got the power of superintendence and control over every High Court in India. Its orders are enforceable throughout the country and it can order anyone to appear before it or call for any document. Its decisions can invalidate the laws made by even the highest legislative authority of the land—the Parliament of India.
Above all, the Supreme Court is the protector of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under the Constitution. In the exercise of this power, it can declare Union or State laws invalid or issue writs or orders to any administrative authority in any part of India with a view to preventing the infringement of any Fundamental Right. The combination of such wide and varied powers in the Supreme Court makes it not only the supreme authority in the judicial field, but also the guardian of the Constitution and the laws of the land.
Court of Record : Article 129 provides Supreme Court to be a court of records. This means that
its records are admitted to be of evidentiary value and cannot be questioned in any court. As a court of record, it also enjoys the power to punish for contempt of itself. The punishment can be simple imprisonment for a term up to six months, or fine up to Rs. 2000 or both.
Other Powers of the Supreme Court : Apart from the jurisdictions given above, there are other powers enjoyed by the Supreme Court. These powers are as follows :
(a) Supreme Court appoints its officers and servants in consultation with the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and determines their conditions of service with the approval of the President.
(b) Supreme Court can make rules regarding the practice and procedure of the court with the prior approval of the President.
(c) Supreme Court can appoint arbitrators to decide cases and disputes relating to extra costs incurred by the State government in carrying out the directions of the Union Government.
(d) Supreme Court is the only authority to look into disputes regarding the election of the President and the Vice-President.
(e) Supreme Court can recommend the removal of the Chairman and members of the UPSC to the President.