Judiciary and federalism

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Judiciary and federalism

  • The essential characteristic of federalism is the distribution of limited executive, legislative and judicial authority among bodies which are coordinate with and independent of each other
  • India is a union of States. The Supreme Court of India has held that the federalist nature of our country is part and parcel of the basic structure of the Constitution.

India being a Integrated System

  • Federalism is a midpoint between unitarism which has a supreme centre, to which the States are subordinate, and confederalism wherein the States are supreme, and are merely coordinated by a weak centre.
  • The idea which lies at the bottom of federalism is that each of the separate States should have approximately equal political rights and thereby be able to maintain their non-dependent (for want of a better word) characteristics within the larger union.
  • An integral requirement of a federal state is that there be a robust federal judicial system which interprets this constitution, and therefore adjudicates upon the rights of the federal units and the central unit, and between the citizen and these units.
  • The federal judicial system comprises the Supreme Court and the High Court in the sense that it is only these two courts which can adjudicate the above rights.

Views of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on Indian Federation

  • Dr. B.R. Ambedkar stated in the Constituent Assembly: “The Indian Federation though a dual polity has no dual judiciary at all. The High Courts and the Supreme Court form one single integrated judiciary having jurisdiction and providing remedies in all cases arising under the constitutional law, the civil law or the criminal law.”

Equality of Power between Supreme Court and High Court

  • The Indian Constitution envisaged the equality of power of High Court judges and Supreme Court judges, with a High Court judge not being a subordinate of a Supreme Court judge.
  • The Supreme Court has, on many occasions, reiterated the position that the Supreme Court is superior to the High Court only in the appellate sense.

Evidences which led to imbalance in the federal structure of Judiciary

  • In recent years, three specific trends have greatly eroded the standing of the High Court, leading to an imbalance in the federal structure of the judiciary.
  • First, the Supreme Court (or rather, a section of its judges, called “the Collegium”) has the power to appoint judges and chief justices to the High Courts and the Supreme Court. This Collegium also has the power to transfer judges and chief justices from one High Court to another.
  • Second, successive governments have passed laws that create parallel judicial systems of courts and tribunals which provide for direct appeals to the Supreme Court, bypassing the High Courts.
  • Third, the Supreme Court has been liberal in entertaining cases pertaining to trifling matters.

Centralisation of Judiciary and its effect on federal structure

  • The greater the degree of centralisation of the judiciary, the weaker the federal structure.
  • Judicial review by a centralised judiciary tends toward unitarism (the opposite of federalism).
  • Courts face much weaker constraints when they strike down state legislation, especially state laws that are disapproved of by national political majorities... The federal government and sympathetic state governments elsewhere in the country may even support such judicial intervention.
  • The Supreme Court of India today, by playing the role of a collegium, effectively wields the power to appoint a person as a judge to a High Court or to transfer him or her to another High Court, or to appoint (or delay the appointment) of a sufficiently senior High Court judge as a chief justice or as a judge of the Supreme Court. The practical impact of this in the power dynamic between a High Court judge and a Supreme Court judge.
  • The Supreme Court leads many to approach it directly as a panacea for all ills befalling the nation.
  • The Supreme Court interfering in matters which are clearly of local importance, having no constitutional ramifications.
  • Creation of parallel hierarchies of courts and tribunals, whether it be the Competition Commission, or the company law tribunals, or the consumer courts.
  • In all these cases, the High Courts are bypassed. Laws have been drafted such that the High Court has no role to play and the Supreme Court directly acts as an appellate court.


  • All central units have a natural tendency to aggrandise power to themselves from the state units, believing that centralisation enables them to discharge their duties more effectively in relation to the entire state.
  • But in reality, the weakening of the state units sets off a weakening of the entire body of the state, which gradually ossifies into irreversible decay.
  • The Supreme Court itself recognises the importance of self-abnegation and restores the federal balance by re-empowering the High Courts.