Ending his over six-years-long tenure at the Supreme Court on Monday with judgments on the Prashant Bhushan contempt case, AGR dues and management of Ujjain's Mahakaleshwar temple, Justice Arun Mishra demitted office saying, "Shiv ji ki kripa se ye aakhri judgment bhi ho gaya (The final judgment has been delivered, by the grace of Lord Shiva)."
Justice Mishra, who was elevated to the apex court from the Calcutta High Court in July 2014, has delivered some key verdicts, including on the legality of SC/ST Amendment Act, CJI impeachment case, Bhima Koregaon case, Election Commission appointments, sexual harassment charges against former CJI Ranjan Gogoi and the land acquisition case. As a Supreme Court judge, Justice Arun Mishra authored 132 judgments and he was part of 540 benches which delivered judgments in the apex court, according to The Wire.
Mishra's contentious judgments have often invited criticism and even protests. A February 2019 order, effecting the eviction of tribals and forest dwellers whose claims over land were rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006, was stayed after sharp criticism. The order, if implemented, would have impacted nearly 1 million families.
Cases challenging the office of the Chief Justice of India were heard by a panel of judges, which also included Justice Mishra. While in 2018, the case to decide if the Rajya Sabha Chairman's rejection of an Impeachment Motion against the then Chief Justice is subject to judicial review ended with the withdrawal of the petition, the sexual harassment case against Gogoi in 2019 was said to be a direct attack on the independence of the judiciary.
He also was a part of the Bench that was hearing a petition by the NGO Common Cause seeking a probe into the Sahara-Birla diaries alleging payments to top party functionaries, a case which had an impact across the political spectrum. In July 2019, as a part of a two-judge Bench, he also reversed the Gujarat High Court's order that acquitted those accused of the murder of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya in 2003.
However, it was in 2018, that the disagreements within the judiciary came to the fore in an unprecedented press conference by now retired Justices Ranjan Gogoi, J Chelameswar, Kurian Joseph and Madan B Lokur on the allocation of important cases by then CJI Dipak Misra to "junior judges". Even though the dissenting judges remained tight-lipped, it has been said that the hearing of petitions seeking a probe into the death of special CBI judge BH Loya, initially assigned to Justice Mishra, lay at the centre of the revolt. The case was later heard by Justice Gogoi.
Sources also told The Indian Express that differences arose over the allocation of the land acquisition case to a Bench, which included Justice Mishra. The 2014 ruling held that depositing the compensation in the Treasury cannot be treated as compensation paid to land owner and the acquisition could be cancelled on this ground. In 2018, a Bench, yet again with Mishra on board, overturned the judgment which held that compensation not availed of within a stipulated five-year period could not be ground for cancellation of land acquisition. Later, Mishra refused to recuse himself from the case when it was referred to a five-judge Constitution Bench.
Just like talking about a case on social media invited his ire in Prashant Bhushan's matter, he told senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan in the land acquisition case of maligning him and the court. Later, a battery of senior advocates, led by Kapil Sibal, Mukul Rohatgi, Abhishek Singhvi and Supreme Court Bar Association president Rakesh Khanna, requested Mishra to be patient in dealing with lawyers. Justice Mishra had apologised, adding that he respects the bar more than any other judge and had never drawn contempt against any lawyer in his career.
In March 2020, he was a part of the Constitution Bench which upheld the 2018 ruling given by Mishra himself. As the contempt of court hearing involving Bhushan continued and the activist-lawyer refused to apologise, Mishra observed that judges, when attacked, cannot run to the media to defend themselves and can only speak through their judgments.
Mishra was among the judges who also heard another similar case in December 2017, in which the Bench ruled that the CJI is the master of the roster, effectively negating Justice Chelameswar's order directing the formation of a Constitution Bench in the Orissa Medical College bribery case.
Recently, he, along with Justice MR Shah, had also taken note of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah's detention in March, adding that if he is not released, the court will hear his sister Sara Pilot's plea on merit. On the other hand, Justice Mishra heard habeas corpus petitions filed on behalf of the former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and the former Union minister Saifuddin Soz. While the one filed by Mufti's daughter Iltija was not heard after 26 February, the plea concerning Soz was dismissed after the Jammu and Kashmir administration said he was not in detention.
As the political crisis unfolded in Rajasthan, Justice Arun Mishra and the Bench declined to provide any relief to the Congress, refusing to stay the Rajasthan High Court's order restraining the Assembly speaker from disqualifying the rebel leaders loyal to Sachin Pilot ahead of the trust vote.
Outside of the court, Mishra's praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an "internationally acclaimed visionary" and a "versatile genius, who thinks globally and acts locally" had invited criticism. While the Bombay Bar Association called the remarks made at an international judicial conference "improper and unnecessary", the SCBA said it reflects "poorly on the independence of the judiciary".
His farewell too became mired in controversy, with a fake statement saying that the SCBA would not hold a farewell for Justice Mishra. Dushyant Dave, president, SCBA, released a statement to dismiss the claim, calling it "false and incorrect". "No such statement has been issued by the EC. In fact, this matter has not been considered by the EC in any meeting. I strongly condemn the same as being mischievous and an attempt to malign the SCBA," he said.
Justice Mishra practised constitutional, civil, industrial, service and criminal law and in 1998, became the youngest chairman of the Bar Council of India. During his tenure, the Bar Council decided to shut down evening law colleges and instituted the five-year undergraduate course instead of the three-year course. Over 200 law colleges were shut down for being sub-standard and a large number of disciplinary cases were decided to maintain the dignity of the profession. The medical aid to lawyers was enhanced and rules pertaining to foreign lawyers' practice in India were drafted.
With inputs from PTI