The Constitution has conferred a very extensive jurisdiction and vast powers on the Supreme Court. It is not only a Federal Court like the American Supreme Court but also a final court of appeal like the British House of Lords (the Upper House of the British Parliament). It is also the final interpreter and guardian of the Constitution and guarantor of the fundamental rights of the citizens. Further, it has advisory and supervisory powers. Therefore, Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar, a member of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, rightly remarked: “The Supreme Court of India has more powers than any other Supreme Court in any part of the world.” The jurisdiction and powers of the Supreme Court can be classified into the following:
1. Original Jurisdiction.
2. Writ Jurisdiction.
3. Appellate Jurisdiction.
4. Advisory Jurisdiction.
5. A Court of Record.
6. Power of Judicial Review.
7. Other Powers.
1. Original Jurisdiction
As a federal court, the Supreme Court decides the disputes between different units of the Indian Federation. More elaborately, any dispute between:
(a) the Centre and one or more states; or
(b) the Centre and any state or states on one side and one or more states on the other; or
(c) between two or more states.
In the above federal disputes, the Supreme Court has exclusive original jurisdiction. Exclusive means, no other court can decide such disputes and original means, the power to hear such disputes in the first instance, not by way of appeal.
With regard to the exclusive original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, two points should be noted. One, the dispute must involve a question (whether of law or fact) on which the existence or extent of a legal right depends. Thus, the questions of political nature are excluded from it. Two, any suit brought before the Supreme Court by a private citizen against the Centre or a state cannot be entertained under this.
Further, this jurisdiction of the Supreme Court does not extend to the following:
(a) A dispute arising out of any pre-Constitution treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement, sanad or other similar instrument.8
(b) A dispute arising out of any treaty, agreement, etc., which specifically provides that the said jurisdiction does not extent to such a dispute.9
(c) Inter-state water disputes.10
(d) Matters referred to the Finance Commission.
(e) Adjustment of certain expenses and pensions between the Centre and the states.
(f) Ordinary dispute of Commercial nature between the Centre and the states.
(g) Recovery of damages by a state against the Centre.
In 1961, the first suit, under the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, was brought by West Bengal against the Centre. The State Government challenged the Constitutional validity of the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, passed by the Parliament. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the suit by upholding the validity of the Act.
2. Writ Jurisdiction
The Constitution has constituted the Supreme Court as the guarantor and defender of the fundamental rights of the citizens. The Supreme Court is empowered to issue writs including habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo-warrento and certiorari for the enforcement of the fundamental rights of an aggrieved citizen. In this regard, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in the sense that an aggrieved citizen can directly go to the Supreme Court, not necessarily by way of appeal. However, the writ jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is not exclusive. The high courts are also empowered to issue writs for the enforcement of the Fundamental Rights. It means, when the Fundamental Rights of a citizen are violated, the aggrieved party has the option of moving either the high court or the Supreme Court directly.
Therefore, the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court with regard to federal disputes is different from its original jurisdiction with regard to disputes relating to fundamental rights. In the first case, it is exclusive and in the second case, it is concurrent with high courts jurisdiction. Moreover, the parties involved in the first case are units of the federation (Centre and states) while the dispute in the second case is between a citizen and the Government (Central or state).
There is also a difference between the writ jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and that of the high court. The Supreme Court can issue writs only for the enforcement of the Fundamental Rights and not for other purposes. The high court, on the other hand, can issue writs not only for the enforcement of the fundamental rights but also for other purposes. It means that the writ jurisdiction of the high court is wider than that of the Supreme Court. But, the Parliament can confer on the Supreme Court, the power to issue writs for other purposes also.
3. Appellate Jurisdiction
As mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court has not only succeeded the Federal Court of India but also replaced the British Privy Council as the highest court of appeal. The Supreme Court is primarily a court of appeal and hears appeals against the judgements of the lower courts. It enjoys a wide appellate jurisdiction which can be classified under four heads:
(a) Appeals in constitutional matters.
(b) Appeals in civil matters.
(c) Appeals in criminal matters.
(d) Appeals by special leave.
(a) Constitutional Matters In the constitutional cases, an appeal can be made to the Supreme Court against the judgement of a high court if the high court certifies that the case involves a substantial question of law that requires the interpretation of the Constitution. Based on the certificate, the party in the case can appeal to the Supreme Court on the ground that the question has been wrongly decided.
(b) Civil Matters In civil cases, an appe-al lies to the Supreme Court from any judgement of a high court if the high court certifies--
(i) that the case involves a substantial question of law of general importance; and
(ii) that the question needs to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Originally, only those civil cases that involved a sum of T20,000 could be
appealed before the Supreme Court. But this monetary limit was removed by the 30th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1972.
(c) Criminal Matters The Supreme Court hears appeals against the judgement in a criminal proceeding of a high court if the high court--
(i) has on appeal reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him to death; or
(ii) has taken before itself any case from any subordinate court and convicted the accused person and sentenced him to death; or
(iii) certifies that the case is a fit one for appeal to the Supreme Court.
In the first two cases, an appeal lies to the Supreme Court as a matter of right (ie, without any certificate of the high court). But 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 Supreme Court.
In 1970, the Parliament had enlarged the Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Accordingly, an appeal lies to the Supreme Court from the judgement of a high court if the high court:
(i) has on appeal, reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him to imprisonment for life or for ten years; or
(ii) has taken before itself any case from any subordinate court and convicted the accused person and sentenced him to imprisonment for life or for ten years.
Further, the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court extends to all civil and criminal cases in which the Federal Court of India had jurisdiction to hear appeals from the high court but which are not covered under the civil and criminal appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court mentioned above.
(d) Appeal by Special Leave The Supreme Court is authorised to grant in its discretion special leave to appeal from any judgement in any matter passed by any court or tribunal in the country (except military tribunal and court martial). This provision contains the four aspects as under:
(i) It is a discretionary power and hence, cannot be claimed as a matter of right.
(ii) It can be granted in any judgement whether final or interlocutory.
(iii) It may be related to any matter—constitutional, civil, criminal, income- tax, labour, revenue, advocates, etc.
(iv) It can be granted against any court or tribunal and not necessarily against a high court (of course, except a military court).
Thus, the scope of this provision is very wide and it vests the Supreme Court with a plenary jurisdiction to hear appeals. On the exercise of this power, the Supreme Court itself held that ‘being an exceptional and overriding power, it has to be exercised sparingly and with caution and only in special extraordinary situations. Beyond that it is not possible to fetter the exercise of this power by any set formula or rule’.
4. Advisory Jurisdiction
The Constitution (Article 143) authorises the president to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court in the two categories of matters:
(a) On any question of law or fact of public importance which has arisen or which is likely to arise.
(b) On any dispute arising out of any pre-constitution treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement, sanador other similar instruments.11
In the first case, the Supreme Court may tender or may refuse to tender its opinion to the president. But, in the second case, the Supreme Court ‘must’ tender its opinion to the president. In both the cases, the opinion expressed by the Supreme Court is only advisory and not a judicial pronouncement. Hence, it is not binding on the president; he may follow or may not follow the opinion. However, it facilitates the government to have an authoritative legal
opinion on a matter to be decided by it.
So far (2013), the President has made fifteen references to the Supreme
Court under its advisory jurisdiction (also known as consultative
jurisdiction). These are mentioned below in the chronological order.
1. Delhi Laws Act in 1951
2. Kerala Education Bill in 1958
3. Berubari Union in 1960
4. Sea Customs Act in 1963
5. Keshav Singh’s case relating to the privileges of the Legislature in 1964
6. Presidential Election in 1974
7. Special Courts Bill in 1978
8. Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act in 1982
9. Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in 1992
10. Rama Janma Bhumi case in 1993
11. Consultation process to be adopted by the chief justice of India in 1998
12. Legislative competence of the Centre and States on the subject of natural gas and liquefied natural gas in 2001
13. The constitutional validity of the Election Commission’s decision on deferring the Gujarat Assembly Elections in 2002
14. Punjab Termination of Agreements Act in 2004
15. 2G spectrum case verdict and the mandatory auctioning of natural resources across all sectors in 2012
5. A Court of Record
As a Court of Record, the Supreme Court has two powers:
(a) The judgements, 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. They are recognised as legal precedents and legal references.
(b) It has power to punish for contempt of court, either with simple imprisonment for a term up to six months or with fine up to T2,000 or with both. In 1991, the Supreme Court has ruled that it has power to punish for contempt not only of itself but also of high courts, subordinate courts and tribunals functioning in the entire country.
Contempt of court may be civil or criminal. Civil contempt means wilful disobedience to any judgement, order, writ or other process of a court or wilful breach of an undertaking given to a court. Criminal contempt means the publication of any matter or doing an act which—(i) scandalises or lowers the authority of a court; or (ii) prejudices or interferes with the due course of a judicial proceeding; or (iii) interferes or obstructs the administration of justice in any other manner.
However, innocent publication and distribution of some matter, fair and accurate report of judicial proceedings, fair and reasonable criticism of judicial acts and comment on the administrative side of the judiciary do not amount to contempt of court.
6. Power of Judicial Review
Judicial review is the power of the Supreme Court to examine the constitutionality of legislative enactments and executive orders of both the Central and state governments. On examination, if they are found to be violative of the Constitution (ultra-vires), they can be declared as illegal, unconstitutional and invalid (null and void) by the Supreme Court. Consequently, they cannot be enforced by the Government.
7. Other Powers
Besides the above, the Supreme Court has numerous other powers:
(a) It decides the disputes regarding the election of the president and the vicepresident. In this regard, it has the original, exclusive and final authority.
(b) It enquires into the conduct and behaviour of the chairman and members of the Union Public Service Commission on a reference made by the president. If it finds them guilty of misbehaviour, it can recommend to the president for their removal. The advice tendered by the Supreme Court in this regard is binding on the President.
(c) It has power to review its own judgement or order. Thus, it is not bound by its previous decision and can depart from it in the interest of justice or community welfare. In brief, the Supreme Court is a self-correcting agency. For example, in the Kesavananda Bharati case (1973), the Supreme Court departed from its previous judgement in the Golak Nath case (1967).
(d) It is authorised to withdraw the cases pending before the high courts and dispose them by itself. It can also transfer a case or appeal pending before one high court to another high court.
(e) Its law is binding on all courts in India. Its decree or order is enforceable throughout the country. All authorities (civil and judicial) in the country should act in aid of the Supreme Court.
(f) It is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. It can give final version to the spirit and content of the provisions of the Constitution and the verbiage used in the Constitution.
(g) It has power of judicial superintendence and control over all the courts and tribunals functioning in the entire territory of the country.
The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and powers with respect to matters in the Union list can be enlarged by the Parliament. Further, its jurisdiction and powers with respect to other matters can be enlarged by a special agreement of the Centre and the states.