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Darkness vs institutional transparency

SC to rule today if CJI can be brought under RTI Act

By PTI in New Delhi
  • Published 13.11.19, 4:02 AM
  • Updated 13.11.19, 4:02 AM
  • 3 mins read
The Supreme Court of India (File photo)

The Supreme Court will pronounce on Wednesday the verdict on petitions challenging a Delhi High Court decision bringing the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi will pronounce the judgment at 2pm. The other members of the bench are Justices N.V. Ramana, D.Y. Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna. The notice regarding the pronouncement of the judgment was made public on the apex court’s official website on Tuesday afternoon.

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 orders.

The bench, headed by the Chief Justice, 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, Delhi High Court had held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the RTI law, saying judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him.

The 88-page judgment was then seen as a personal setback to the then CJI, K.G. Balakrishnan, who had been opposed to the disclosure of information relating to judges under the RTI Act. The high court verdict was delivered by a three-judge bench of Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justices Vikramjit Sen and S. Muralidhar.

The bench had dismissed a plea of the Supreme Court that contended that bringing the CJI’s office within the RTI Act would “hamper” judicial independence.

Justice Shah has retired. Justice Sen retired as the judge of the Supreme Court, while Justice Muralidhar is a sitting judge of the high court.

The move to bring the office of the CJI under the transparency law was initiated by RTI activist S.C. Agrawal. His lawyer Prashant Bhushan had submitted in the top court that although the court should not have been judging its own cause, it is hearing the appeals because of the “doctrine of necessity”.

The lawyer had described the reluctance of the judiciary in parting with information under the RTI Act as “unfortunate” and “disturbing”. “Do judges inhabit a different universe?” Bhushan had asked.

He had submitted that the apex court had always stood for transparency in the functioning of other organs of the State, but it developed cold feet when its own issues required attention.

Referring to the RTI provisions, Bhushan had said they also dealt with exemptions and information that cannot be given to applicants, but public interest should always “outweigh” personal interests if the person concerned was holding or was about to hold a public office.

Dealing with “judicial independence”, he had said the National Judicial Accountability Commission Act was struck down for protecting the judiciary against interference from the executive, but this did not mean that the judiciary was free from “public scrutiny”.

“This is not independence from accountability. Independence of judiciary means it has to be independent from the executive and not independent from common public. People are entitled to know as to what public authorities are doing,” Bhushan had said.

The deliberations of the collegium in appointing and overlooking judges or lawyers should be made public and the information can be parted with under RTI on a case-to-case basis keeping in mind the larger public interest, the lawyer had said.

The bench had said people, of late, were opting out and did not want to become judges because of the fear of negative publicity.

“On interaction, the reason appears to be the possibility of the negative observations, whether rightly or wrongly, being brought into the public domain,” it had observed.

In such a case, besides losing judgeship and reputation, the professional and family life of the person are adversely affected, it had said.

The apex court had said it had brought about changes in the functioning of the collegium system and now members had started interacting with prospective candidates.