There was some speculation as to whether Justice Gogoi would be appointed in the light of his participation in an unprecedented press conference held by three of his colleagues in January. The press conference was called by the four judges, including Justice Gogoi, to raise their concerns on the Chief Justice’s allocation of cases to benches in the Supreme Court. During that press conference, Justice Gogoi said, “it’s the discharge of a debt to the nation that has brought us here”. The Indian Express editorial stated that with the appointment of Justice Gogoi, the transition would not be hampered by controversy –
“The turbulence triggered by that January press conference in and around a traditionally sedate institution has still not abated. Against that backdrop, and in the context of the turbulence, therefore, CJI Misra’s decision to abide by the established convention stands out — and it reassures”.
Born in 1954 in Assam, he followed his father’s footsteps and pursued law joining the bar in 1978. His father was former Assam Chief Minister Kesab Chandra Gogoi; albeit for a little over two months in 1982 during the turbulent agitation against illegal migrants. He practiced mainly at the Gauhati High Court, where in 2001 he was appointed as a permanent judge. His casework at the High Court consisted mainly of matters related to the constitution, taxation and company cases.
His elder brother retired Air Marshal Anjan Kumar Gogoi vouches for his sibling as someone who is honest and straightforward, saying in part, “From the very beginning, he always followed the right path and rules. When he took up law, I knew he would make a good lawyer”. As one among five kids, his father wanted him to join the civil services, take up a life of public service like he did. Given his outward humble nature, he is among 11 Supreme Court judges to have made public his assets, revealing he has no car.
The Indian Express noted a conversation highlighted by documenter Arup Kumar Dutta in the book “Gauhati High Court: History and Heritage” between then Chief Minister Gogoi and former Law Minister Abdul Muhib Mazumdar; Mr. Gogoi stated that his son would not join politics but had the potential to become the next Chief Justice of India.
In 2010, he was transferred to the Punjab & Haryana High Court where he was elevated as the Chief Justice there in 2011. The following year, he was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Known as someone who speaks his mind in delivering judgments; hence the striking aspect of his presence at the January presses conference. He was known to the court’s Bar Association President, Atul Chandra Buragohain, as someone who thought differently. An example – he combined similar cases and hearing them together to handle the workload efficiently and save time.
Given his no-nonsense nature and straightforwardness, he, in 2016, became the first to issue a contempt notice to a former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju for an “attack on the judges and not the judgment”. This had to do with the Soumya rape and murder case, where Mr. Katju criticised the handling of the case.
As someone who believes fiercely in the independence of the judiciary, his comments at the Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture a few months back seem pertinent. He said in part, “‘independent journalists and sometimes noisy judges’ should be democracy’s first line of defence”. At a time when the role of the judiciary has played a vital role; their judgments of privacy and Section 377; Justice Gogoi will take oath when the judiciary has stepped up when parliament and lawmakers haven’t.
He currently presides over the controversial NRC draft case in Assam along with Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman. Other high profile case he presides over is the Aarushi Talwar murder case; he heads a bench in the alleged telephone exchange case involving former Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran and his brother Kalanithi Maran. Given the country is heading into an election year; he will be watched as to how he handles sensitive cases such as the Ayodhya title suit and the admissibility of Aadhaar as identity proof. As the Free Press Journal editorial stated, he will be judged on his merits and his work –
“With the no-nonsense reputation that he enjoys, he can be expected to eschew political biases. Justice Gogoi would also be judged on how he deals with the contentious issue of appointment of judges which is hanging fire for long”.
Taking the reign of a ship in choppy waters will be a challenge for the new Chief Justice. As someone who is keen on institution building and trying to form consensus on institutional issues, he holds the judiciary in the highest regard and doesn’t diminish its vital role in a democracy as he stated in the Goenka Memorial lecture, “This institution is the last bastion of hope and the one that the citizenry believes firmly, will give justice to them, come what may. I will only say that if it wishes to preserve its moral and institutional leverage, it must remain uncontaminated. And, independent”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar