India’s judicial system is structured with the Supreme Court at the pinnacle, followed by high courts, district courts, and subordinate courts. Despite the high courts being lower in the hierarchy, they are not subordinate to the Supreme Court due to specific reasons. Recently, a significant incident involving the transfer of oxygen supply-related cases from various high courts to the Supreme Court has brought the concept of judicial federalism to the forefront. Judicial federalism involves the division of judicial authority between federal and state courts. In light of the general lack of dissent within the Supreme Court on politically significant issues, the significance of judicial federalism can be explored further.


  • Power of High Courts vs. Supreme Court: High courts possess wider powers under Article 226 of the Constitution to issue writs compared to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction under Article 32. This grants high courts greater authority to provide relief to citizens in a variety of situations.
  • Independence of High Court Judges: The Supreme Court does not have the power to remove high court judges; instead, this authority lies with Parliament. This independence allows high court judges to act with impartiality and without fear of being influenced by the apex court.
  • Transfer of Cases from High Courts to Supreme Court: Article 139A allows the Supreme Court to transfer cases from high courts to itself only under exceptional circumstances. However, in recent times, this provision has been frequently utilized, raising questions about the principle of judicial federalism.
  • Preserving Justice and Preventing Nexus: Judicial federalism prevents the development of a close nexus between the judiciary and the government. When Supreme Court judges have close proximity to the centers of power, they may be influenced by the government’s narratives and take pro-government stances, compromising justice. Post-retirement appointments, such as becoming a member of Rajya Sabha, can raise concerns about impartiality.
  • Ensuring Justice for Common People: During times when there is a perceived nexus between courts and the political executive, justice for the common people may suffer. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, various high courts criticized the central government’s planning and execution, while the Supreme Court took a relatively silent approach. An example is the Supreme Court’s stay on Delhi High Court’s contempt proceedings against the central government.
  • Importance of Diversity and Regional Perspectives: Multiple high courts ensure a diversity of opinion and interpretation, enriching the process of justice. Matters pertaining to public health and hospitals come under the State List, and each high court deals with specific challenges at the regional level, which doesn’t necessarily require uniform guidelines from the Supreme Court.
  • Closeness to the People: The Supreme Court itself acknowledged in the L. Chandra Kumar case in 1997 that high courts have an advantage in winning the confidence of the people. Hence, high courts should be given precedence in providing relief as their perspective is closer to the ground reality.
  • Writ Jurisdiction: High courts’ writ jurisdiction under Article 226 is wider than that of the Supreme Court under Article 32, making them more suited to provide immediate relief in many cases.


Judicial federalism is a crucial aspect of India’s integrated judicial system. It ensures that high courts, despite being lower in hierarchy than the Supreme Court, maintain their independence and play a significant role in rendering justice to Indian citizens. The recent incident involving the transfer of cases related to oxygen supply highlights the importance of striking a balance between centralization and decentralization in the interest of justice. Emulating practices from countries like the US and encouraging high courts to act with responsibility can further strengthen the principle of judicial federalism and uphold the constitutional status of both the Supreme Court and high courts.

Legacy Editor Changed status to publish March 5, 2024