CJI’s office ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act: Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is ‘public authority’ under the purview of the transparency law, Right to Information Act (RTI) and observed that the transparency does not undermine judicial independence.

A five-judge Constitution Bench of the apex court gave the verdict while upholding the 2010 judgment of the Delhi High Court which ruled that office of the CJI comes under the purview of the RTI.

“Public interest demands that transparency is maintained,” the apex court said, adding that transparency strengthens the judicial independence.

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The top court ruled that the right to privacy and confidentiality is an important aspect and it has to be balanced. The bench said that there has to be a balance between the right to information and the right to privacy as well as confidentiality and independence of the judiciary.

The five-judge Constitution Bench comprises Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice NV Ramana, Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjiv Khanna.

The court had reserved the order in the case on April 4.

The issue arose from an appeal filed by the Supreme Court Secretary-General against the January 2010 judgment of the Delhi High Court that declared the CJI’s office a “public authority” within the meaning of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for Subhash Chandra Aggarwal, who had sought details under RTI, had argued that the court has favoured transparency, through various judgments, even before the RTI Act was brought in. But when it comes to cases relating to transparency of the court itself, the “court has not been very forthcoming,” Bhushan said.

He added that disclosure of the information is the best safeguard to ensure the right people get appointment and disclosure must be in the public and has to be for the public.

Bhushan had stressed on the need for transparency in the appointment and transfer of judges.

“Process of appointment and transfers is shrouded in mystery. It remains a sacred ritual and its mystery confined to a handful of people,” Bhushan said, adding that the possibility cannot be ruled out that the process may result in “wrong appointment or transfer and may lead to nepotism”.

Every step towards transparency is engendering “greater public confidence in the institution”, be it the publication of the apex court Collegium resolutions or the roster or even the list of candidates for senior designation, the advocate contended.

Chief Justice Gogoi had then replied by saying, “Of late, we are experiencing good people, who have opted to become judges, withdrawing their consent. On interaction, the reason appears to be the possibility of the negative observations, whether rightly or wrongly, being brought into the public domain. In such a case, not only does he not become a judge, but his reputation, his professional life, his family life are all adversely affected.”

The Chief Justice had further said that nobody is for a system of opaqueness. “Nobody wants to remain in the state of darkness or keep anybody in the state of darkness. The question is drawing a line. In the name of transparency, you can’t destroy the institution … ,” he had said.

Attorney General KK Venugopal, who appeared for the Supreme Court General Secretary, had argued that disclosure of information on Collegium deliberations may affect judicial independence.

If information concerning Collegium functioning is put in the public domain, “great damage” will be done to the institution, Venugopal had added.

The Attorney General had explained the bench that there are three issues in the case. “One is relating to disclosure of correspondence between Collegium and Centre. The second is relating to the disclosure of assets of judges. The third is about disclosure of letters exchanged in the matter of appointment of a Madras High Court judge,” he had said.

On disclosing of assets by the judges, Venugopal had remarked that some of the judges have disclosed their assets but said it is personal information and affects the privacy of judges.

In November 2007, RTI activist Subhash Chandra Aggarwal filed an RTI in the Supreme Court seeking information on judges’ assets but the information was denied. Aggarwal then approached the Central Information Commission (CIC) which asked the apex court to disclose information on the ground that Chief Justice of India’s office comes within the ambit of the Act.

In January 2009, the top court had moved the Delhi High Court against the CIC order contending that declaration of assets by its judges to the Chief Justice of India are “personal information” which cannot be revealed under the RTI act and “too much transparency can affect the independence of the judiciary”.

A single bench of High Court on September 2, 2009, had upheld the CIC’s order and said the Chief Justice of India’s office comes within the ambit of the RTI Act and judges’ assets be made public under the RTI Act.

Meanwhile, in another full-court meeting, the top court passed a resolution to declare their assets “voluntarily” in public by publishing it on the official website.

The top court, thereafter, also challenged the single judge order before a division bench and the High Court decided to constitute a special three-judge bench to decide the issue.

The three-judge bench in November 2009 had observed that the resolution passed by the Supreme Court judges in 1997 for declaring their assets to the Chief Justice of India was binding on them, and in January 2010 it held that the office of CJI comes within the ambit of the RTI Act.

The apex court then filed the appeal against the three-judge bench of the High Court in the top court. The plea was pending in the Supreme Court since 2010. Following this, the apex court decided to send the matter to the five-judge constitution bench.

(With ANI inputs)

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