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Highlighting the importance of transparency in the Judiciary, the Supreme Court today held that that office of the Chief Justice of India comes under the definition of “public authority” under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).
The unanimous decision passed by the Court upholds a 2010 decision of the Delhi High Court, which had brought the Chief Justice of India under the ambit of the RTI Act.
The judgment was rendered by a five-Judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices NV Ramana, DY Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta, and Sanjiv Khanna.
Reading out the majority decision, Justice Khanna said,
“Judicial independence and accountability go hand in hand.”
Justice Ramana wrote a separate concurring opinion. Expressing concern that RTI should not be used a tool of surveillance against judges, Justice Ramana said that the exceptions in Section 8(1)(j) of the Act is to balance the right to privacy. He further said,
“There needs to be a balance and the whole bulwark of upholding it is on the Judiciary. Judiciary needs to be protected from such breach.”
Justice Chandrachud also wrote a separate, concurring opinion. He stated,
“Judicial independence does not mean that the judges are precluded from the rule of law.”
This judgment comes in appeals filed against the decision of the Delhi High Court, which had held that the Supreme Court and the office of the Chief Justice of India are “public authorities” and thus come under the scope and ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005. These appeals were filed by the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court’s Central Public Information Officer.
The questions before the Court included:
The case has its genesis in RTI applications filed by activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal. In one RTI request, Agarwal had sought information with respect to the appointment of Justices HL Dattu, AK Ganguly and RM Lodha. The appointments of these three judges were allegedly objected to by the Prime Minister’s Office, since they were appointed superseding three other judges senior to them.
The Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court and the Appellate Authority had declined his request, but the Central Information Commission (CIC) had ruled in favour of Agarwal. It had directed the CPIO of the Supreme Court to furnish details of the correspondence between Constitutional authorities relating to the appointment of the three judges.
In August 2016, a three-judge Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Prafulla C Pant and AM Khanwilkar referred the case to be heard by a Constitution Bench, which began hearing the matter in April 2019.
The Court reserved its judgment in the case on April 4, after two days of arguments. Attorney General for India KK Venugopal represented the Supreme Court and Advocate Prashant Bhushan argued for the respondent.
Justice Gogoi (as he then was) had remarked that the Court was not in favour of a system of opaqueness, but the Judiciary shall not be compromised in the name of transparency. This remark came as a rebuttal to Bhushan’s argument that opacity in the process of appointment of judges can lead to nepotism and arbitrariness.
[Read the Judgment]