CJI comes under RTI Act, but with riders

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The ruling that the office of the CJI fell within the ambit of the Right to Information Act will bolster the credibility of the judiciary in the public eye. The apex court has agreed that it is not above the law though the decision has come with a rider of the ‘independence of judiciary’. The Supreme Court observed that confidentiality and right to privacy have to be maintained and added that RTI can’t be used as a tool of surveillance. It also said only names of judges recommended by the collegium can be disclosed, not the reasons.

The Constitution is supreme and laws have to be framed keeping in view its avowed aims. It is the duty of the court to interpret and uphold it. The RTI is also an Act of Parliament, a tool to bring in accountability. The five-judge bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice NV Ramana, Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjiv Khanna pronounced the verdict with a 3:2 majority. A five-judge constitution bench had on April 4 reserved its verdict on the appeals filed in 2010 by the Supreme Court secretary general and its central public information officer against the high court and the central information commission’s (CIC’s) orders.

The bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, had wrapped up the hearing, saying nobody wants a “system of opaqueness”, but the judiciary cannot be destroyed in the name of transparency. “Nobody wants to remain in the state of darkness or keep anybody in the state of darkness,” it had said. “The question is drawing a line. In the name of transparency, you can’t destroy the institution.”

In a landmark verdict on January 10, 2010, the Delhi High Court had held in 88-page judgment that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the Right to Information law, saying judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him.

It may be recalled that the move to bring the office of the CJI under the transparency law was initiated by RTI activist SC Agrawal. His lawyer Prashant Bhushan had submitted in the top court that though the SC should not have been judging its own cause, it is hearing the appeals due to “doctrine of necessity”. The lawyer had submitted that the apex court has always stood for transparency in the functioning of other organs of State, but it develops cold feet when its own issues require attention.

Referring to the RTI provisions, Bhushan had said that judiciary is free from “public scrutiny”. Bhushan had pleaded, “This is not the independence from accountability. Independence of judiciary inversely means independent from the executive, an important pillar of democracy but not independent from common public. People are entitled to know as to what public authorities are doing.”

The verdict comes in the matter of a plea filed by Supreme Court Secretary-General challenging Delhi High Court’s 2010 order holding that the CJI’s office is a “public authority” and falls under the ambit of the RTI Act. The concept of judicial independence is not judge’s personal privilege but responsibility cast on the person, the HC had said in its ruling.

The issue dates back to 2007 when Subhash Chandra Aggarwal, RTI activist, filed a plea in HC seeking details of judges’ assets, but the information was denied. In 2009, Agrawal filed an RTI application in the Supreme Court’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO). He had sought details regarding the appointments of three SC judges: justices R.M. Lodha, H.L. Dattu and A.K. Ganguly.

Chronology

November 11, 2007: RTI activist Subhash C Aggarwal files a plea in the Supreme Court seeking information on judges’ assets.

November 30: Information denied in the reply to him.

December 8: First appeal filed at SC’s registry against the denial of information.

January 12, 2008: First appeal dismissed by SC’s registry.

March 5: Aggarwal approaches CIC.

Jan 6, 2009: The CIC asks SC to disclose information on Judges’ assets on the ground that CJI’s office comes within the ambit of RTI Act.

January 17: The SC moves Delhi HC against CIC order.

January 19: The Delhi High Court stays CIC order; asks constitutional expert Fali S Nariman to assist it in deciding the legal issue. Nariman declines saying he is of the view that Judges must declare their assets and he would not be able to be impartial in the case.

March 17: The SC says its judges not averse to declaring their assets and Parliament can enact a law pertaining to such declaration but it must be ensured that the law is not misused.

March 24: HC says that Judges cannot be treated like politicians on asset declaration.

May 1: Delhi High Court Bar Association moves implement application in HC saying that Judges should voluntarily declare assets.

May 4: SC says too much transparency can affect independence of judiciary.

May 4: HC reserves order on SC plea.

September 2: Single Bench of High Court upholds CIC’s order saying that CJI’s office comes within the ambit of RTI Act and judges’ assets be made public under the transparency law.

October 5: The Apex Court challenges single bench verdict before division bench.

October 6: HC agrees to give an urgent hearing to the Supreme Court’s petition.

October 7: HC admits the appeal and constitutes a special three-judge bench to decide the issue.

November 12: HC observes that the resolution passed by the Supreme Court judges for declaring their assets to CJI is binding on them.

November 13: HC reserves judgment on the appeal.

January 12, 2010: HC says the office of CJI comes within the ambit of the RTI Act.

November 26: Secretary General of SC and CPIO file 3 appeals against the HC and CIC orders.

August 17, 2016: SC refers the matter to a Constitution bench. After the Delhi HC judgment in 2010, an appeal was filed in the apex court but it took another six years and it was in August 2016 that three-judge bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi referred it to the constitution bench.

In these nine years, there were serious questions raised against the functioning of Supreme Court. From Collegium’s decision’s regarding the appointment and transfer of some High Court judges to the allocation of important cases

April 4, 2019: SC reserves verdict on whether CJI’s office is public authority under RTI Act

November 13: SC upholds 2010 Delhi High Court verdict, holds office of the CJI is a public authority and falls within the ambit of RTI.

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