On this joyful occasion of Mother’s Day, let’s get to know 6 very special women from the legal world, who have left a mark in the judicial system through their unmatched contribution to law- the 6 female justices of our apex court, the Supreme Court of India. Having served the highest honour in law, our female justices are indeed the epitome of grace, intelligence and devotion. MyAdvo honours our mothers-in-law!
1. Justice M Fathima Beevi
An illustrious personality, with many “firsts” to her name, Justice Beevi was born on 30th April, 1927 to Meera Sahib and Khadeeja Bibi. A Keralite by birth, she completed her schooling from Catholicate High School and subsequently acquired a degree in Bachelor of Sciences from the University College, Trivandrum. Justice Beevi obtained her bachelor’s degree in law from the Government Law College, Trivandrum.
Hailing from the royal family of Pandalam in Kerala, who are distinguished as scholars, Justice Beevi enrolled as an advocate on 14th November, 1950. After serving as a litigator in the State of Kerala for eight years, she was appointed as a Munsif at the Kerala Subordinate Judicial Services in May, 1958. Through a series of promotions in her legal career, Justice Beevi played the role of sub-ordinate judge, Chief Judicial Magistrate, District and Session judge, judicial member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal before being finally appointed as the Judge of Kerala High Court in 1983. Within a time span of just seven months, she became a Permanent Judge of the High Court of Kerala on 14th March, 1984.
Justice Beevi received the highly prestigious appointment as the first Asian Muslim female Judge of Supreme Court of India on 6th October, 1989, a position which she continued to hold till 29th April, 1992 upon her retirement.
In the year 1997, Justice Beevi received her much coveted appointment as the Governor of Tamil Nadu. Adding to her notable career was the term she served as the Chancellor of University of Tamil Nadu, and being the recipient of various honourable awards.
2. Justice Sujata Manohar
Justice Sujata Vasant Manohar may not be a renowned figure in the northern parts of the country, but her contributions to the male dominated legal profession are unmatched.
Justice Manohar was the first woman judge of the Bombay High Court, a remarkable feat for a woman in this profession. She did not however just stop there, she went on to become the first woman Chief Justice of two High Courts, Bombay and Kerala and eventually ended her career as a judge in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
Born in 1934 to the 2nd Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat, Justice Manohar was born with a silver spoon. She completed her graduation from Elphinstone College in Bombay and then went to Oxford to pursue her interests in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She passed the bar exams in London before returning to her native land to practice law in the High Court of Bombay. Despite being born into a house of legal luminaries, Justice Manohar did not have it easy as a woman in the legal profession. She faced considerable difficulties in managing her household after marriage and the demanding nature of her work. As fantastic as the woman is, she handled it all with relative ease.
As a lawyer, Justice Manohar took commercial cases along with family disputes, as a part of the Legal Aid schemes. She also handed substantial amount of Public Interest Litigation and did a lot of pro-bono work. Remarkably, Justice Manohar worked for around 30 Non-Government Organisations without charging any fee.
In 1978, after 20 years of practice, she was appointed as the first woman judge of Bombay High Court. Subsequently, she was appointed as the Chief Justice in 1994. In the same year, she was transferred to Kerala High Court as the Chief Justice thereby becoming the first woman to hold this position. Towards the end of 1994, Justice Manohar was then called on to become a judge in the Supreme Court of India. She was on the bench that made it mandatory for government and the private sector to take steps to end sexual harassment of working women.
In 1999, Justice Manohar retired as the Judge of the Supreme Court. Thereafter, she served as a Member of the National Human Rights Commission till 2004. She is an honorary fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and an honorary bencher of Lincoln's Inn, London.
In the year 2017, aged 82, she is still going headstrong, her interviews and articles often appearing in tabloids and newspapers. A role model for the women in the noble profession of law, Justice Manohar is truly, as Mike Ross would put it, a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious woman.
3. Justice Ruma Pal
Justice Ruma Pal, an exceptional woman who was the 3rd woman judge of the Supreme Court of India, has been a role model to many woman across the country for her contributions and achievements in the male dominated profession.
Born in 1941 to a Civil Servant, Justice Pal attended schools in six different cities due to her father’s profession. She studied law in Nagpur University, where initially she was told that she will be given private classes as girls were not allowed in classrooms. However, on her insistence, the principal allowed her to sit in the classes. She was the only girl studying law in her college. After her graduation, she went to Oxford University to pursue BCL.
After her BCL, Justice Pal returned to India to begin her practice in Calcutta High Court. She joined the chambers of Sidhartha Shankar Roy, who would soon become the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Justice Pal worked extensively on Civil, Revenue, Labour and Constitutional matters. She still recalls the time when after winning cases she was taunted that she won because she had a pretty face or when people came to her courtroom just to watch a woman argue. Undettered by all this, Justice Pal continued her hard work and became one of the most sought after lawyers in the Calcutta High Court.
It was in the year 1989 when she was offered judgeship for the second time, she accepted it and was appointed as a judge. Ten years later, she was appointed as a judge in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. In the Supreme Court, Justice Pal has delivered judgements on various issues related to Human Rights and social causes. In 2006, Justice Pal retired from the Supreme Court.
Since her retirement, Justice Pal has been working on various committees and organisations for social welfare. She is an advisor to the Asia Pacific Forum on Equality Issues. She has served as a member of International Labour Organisation, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, National Judicial Academy, WBNUJS and the Supreme Court Museum Committee among others. Justice Pal has edited the famous book on Constitutional Law by Prof. M.P. Jain and served as an editor of African Law Reports at Oxford.
Through thick and thin, Justice Pal persevered through the tough calling of the legal profession, managing her domestic and work life successfully. She attributes her success to her husband Samaraditya Pal, who is a leading lawyer in Calcutta High Court. A shining diamond for the legal profession, Justice Pal is certainly missed around the courtrooms.
4. Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai
A former Judge of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India and presently serving as Chairperson of the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity, Justice Desai is a living legend in the field of law. Prior to her tenure in the Supreme Court, she served as a judge in the Bombay High Court for 15 long years. A role model to many, Justice Desai had a remarkable career as a woman in the legal profession.
Born in 1949 in to an eminent criminal lawyer S.G. Samant, Justice Desai did not have it easy. She faced tough opposition from her father when she chose to follow his footsteps as he thought legal profession was not meant for women. However, as Don Corleone once quoted, ‘Great people are not born great, but they grow great’. Same was Justice Desai’s story, who went on to pursue her legal studies from the prestigious Government Law College, Bombay despite the unfavourable odds of succeeding in a male dominated profession.
As a lawyer, Justice Desai did not join her father’s practice but instead chose to start on her own. She joined the practice when there were very few women lawyers in Bombay High Court. She practiced as a government pleader and was also appointed as Special Public Prosecutor in some cases. She frequently recalls the time in her interviews when a junior lawyer was chosen as a government pleader and she was appointed additional counsel just because she was a woman. However, she acknowledged that the then Advocate General and her family were always supportive of her and stopped her from resigning.
It was in the year 1996 when she was appointed as a judge in the High Court of Bombay. She served there till 2011 when she was called up to the Supreme Court of India as a judge where she constituted the first ever all woman bench along with Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra. She was on the bench which delivered the ruling that an option to choose ‘none of the above’ shall be made available in EVMs. She was also on the bench in the black money case that ordered the central government to reveal all the names it had received from foreign countries with regard to foreign bank account holders. She was also the judge who upheld the death sentence of Ajmal Kasab.
With tears rolling down her eyes, remembering all the ups and downs she went through, Justice Desai made her farewell speech at her farewell ceremony in 2014 after her retirement from the Apex Court. She attributed her successful career to her husband, Dr. Desai, her son Mike who’s a practicing lawyer in Delhi and to the two lovely ladies, her mother and mother in law who supported her domestic life when she was locked up with work.
The woman wearing a trademark white sari with a red and blue border, long sleeved blouse and salt ‘n’ pepper hair tied bun, with that sparking winning smile of hers is certainly missed around the courtrooms.
5. Justice Gyan Sudha Misra
Justice Misra has served as a Judge of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, Chief Justice of High Court of Jharkhand and as a judge in the High Courts of Patna and Rajasthan.
Born in 1949 in a middle class family, she had high hopes for succeeding in the legal profession. Following the examples of exemplary women like Justice Leila Seth, Justice Misra stepped into the legal field in 1972 by enrolling in the Bihar State Bar Council as an advocate. Justice Misra entered a male dominated profession with high hopes of making it to the top, had a rough time with the bar as in those early years, people were reluctant to hire female counsels. However, as they say, great hopes make great people. Justice Misra was not one to give in to the demands of the profession, she continued her hard work and persevered through the early years.
As a lawyer, Justice Misra contributed to the social causes and to the welfare of the bar members. She was elected as a Treasurer, Joint Secretary and Member of Executive Committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association several times.
In recognition of her services as a lawyer, Justice Misra was elevated to the bench in the Patna High Court in 1994. She was thereafter transferred to the Rajasthan High Court. After 14 successful years as a judge, Justice Misra was elevated as the Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court in 2008. Thereafter in 2010, she was appointed as a judge in Supreme Court of India being the fourth woman judge to do so. She also constituted the first ever all woman bench in the Supreme Court with Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai.
As a Supreme Court judge, Justice Misra passed many landmark and notable judgements. She was on the bench that delivered the verdict on BCCI-Srinivasan Case, Euthanasia judgement (Aruna Shaunbaug matter) and the Delhi Uphaar tragedy among others. Justice Misra has been on the Selection Committee for appointment of Civil Judges and Executive Chairman of Rajasthan State Legal Services Authority where she worked extensively on social problems such as female foeticide, child marriages, exploitation of women etc. She has also represented India in the Conference of International Association of Women Judges held in Canada.
Justice Misra has long served as a strong believer of social justice and has worked on removing the imbalances in the society. Often the last person to enter the courtroom, Justice Misra was always late, so much that she arrived late even on her farewell, that caused quite a few good laughs. Despite all this, she was loved by her peers and the members of the bar for her cheerful nature and her legal intellect.
6.Justice R Banumathi
The sixth and currently serving judge at the Supreme Court of India, Justice R Banumathi is one of those eminent personalities who shall forever be known for their contribution to the field of law.
She began her career as a District Judge in the year 1988 and worked as District and Sessions Judge in various Districts of the State of Tamil Nadu, before being elevated as a Judge of High Court of Madras in the year 2003. While serving as a Sessions Court judge, she was known for delivering a catena of landmark judgments. In the year 1995-1996, Justice Banumathi also headed the one-person commission on the indiscriminate behaviour by Special Task Force (STF) towards the villagers of Coimbatore.
During her term in the Madras High Court, Justice Banumathi dispensed several significant judgments, including the one involving Jallikattu, which is currently a hot topic in the legal world. The verdict paved the way for formulating regulations relating to Jallikattu. Justice Banumathi has published a guide titled "Hand Book of Civil and Criminal Courts Management and Use of Computers" meant for the guidance of Judicial Ministerial Staff. She has been an Executive Chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Legal Services ever since 2013.
Defying the stereotypes revolving around the rare occurrence of a trial court judge making it to the Supreme Court, Justice R Banumathi, the then Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court, achieved the greatest recognition in the judicial system through utter dedication and commitment towards her passion for law. She is the second woman Sessions Judge who has been elevated as a Judge in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
Indian women have proved to be all-rounders, always. Be it the eternal role of motherhood or excelling in their career- Indian women are the true figures of strength, courage and righteousness. The 6 remarkable female justices of the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India have shown us how a judge acts as a neutral referee with the sole aim to not cause prejudice to anyone- much like mothers in real life. Their extraordinary lives shall continue to inspire us for generations to come.