It is safe to say that the press conference held on Friday by four Supreme Court judges and the allegations they levelled are unprecedented in the history of that august institution. Justice Jasti Chelameswar didn’t mince words, saying: “There are many things that are less than desirable that have happened ... we tried to persuade the chief justice that certain things are not in order and therefore he should take remedial measures. Unfortunately, we failed.” Crucially, these four judges — Justices Chelameswar, Madan Lokur, Ranjan Gogoi and Kurian Joseph — are the seniormost members of the Supreme Court bench after Chief Justice Deepak Misra. All four are members of the court’s five-member collegium, which decides on judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and the High Courts.

The trigger for the dramatic development appeared to be the chief justice’s decision to hear a petition relating to the death of the special CBI judge, Justice Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, who was hearing the controversial Sohrabuddin case. On Friday, Senior Counsel, Dushyant Dave had made an impassioned plea not to take up the case as it was already being heard by the Bombay High Court. This was rejected by the Chief Justice who, on Monday, continued hearing the case and issued a notice to the Maharashtra government to submit the autopsy report on Loya’s death. But trouble has been brewing in the court for quite some time and it was the subject of a letter written by the judges criticising the way cases are being assigned to certain benches. In their letter, the judges pointed out that while the Chief Justice had the power to assign cases, there were certain principles which had to be followed while doing this. Specifically, in November, a case challenging the appointment of a CBI additional director was scheduled to be heard by a two-member bench, headed by Justice Gogoi, but was put before another bench at the last moment. Similarly, another case relating to medical admissions first came before a bench led by Chelameswar, but was transferred to a far junior judge.

Though the four judges didn’t say it openly, it’s clear they believe that the Chief Justice is keeping for himself key cases, especially those involving the Government, or assigning them to more junior judges. The question remains: Should the four judges have gone public? There can be no questioning their integrity and they’ve never been high-profile and can’t be accused of grandstanding. But clearly, there is a deep sense of grievance which has prompted this public outburst. These need to be addressed expeditiously and an amicable resolution arrived at, before public confidence in the judiciary is shaken further.