“The CJI is within the public authority,” the Supreme Court said.
The Chief Justice of India’s office comes under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Supreme Court ruled today in a landmark judgment, emphasizing that “in a constitutional democracy judges can’t be above the law”.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was a part of the five-judge constitution bench that reaffirmed a Delhi High Court judgment and decided that the office of the Chief Justice is a public authority. “Transparency does not undermine judicial independence. Judicial independence and accountability go hand in hand,” said the judges.
The bench had, in April, reserved its verdict on appeals filed in 2010 by the Supreme Court secretary general and its central public information officer against the High Court and Central Information Commission’s (CIC) orders.
“The Right to Information and Right to Privacy are two sides of the same coin. None can take precedence over the other,” the court said in a majority judgement upholding the High Court’s ruling.
The other judges on the Constitution Bench were Justices NV Ramana, DY Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna.
In 2010, the 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 high court had dismissed the Supreme Court’s argument at the time, that bringing the top judge’s office within the RTI Act would “hamper” judicial independence.
The move to bring the office of the Chief Justice under the transparency law was initiated by RTI activist SC Agrawal. His lawyer Prashant Bhushan had petitioned that the Supreme Court should not have been judging its own cause but it was hearing the appeals due to “doctrine of necessity”.
The lawyer had accused the judiciary of what he called an “unfortunate and disturbing” reluctance in supplying information under the Right To Information Act. “Do judges inhabit different universe,” he had asked.
The Supreme Court has always stood for transparency, but it had developed cold feet when its own issues required attention, the lawyer said.
Referring to the RTI, Prashant Bhushan had argued that public interest should always “outweigh” personal interests if the person concerned is holding or about to hold a public office.
The National Judicial Accountability Commission Act, the lawyer said, was struck down for protecting the judiciary against interference from the executive, but this did not mean that judiciary is 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,” Mr Bhushan had said.
The 2010 judgement was seen as a setback to then Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, who had been opposed to disclosing information relating to judges under the RTI Act.
On whether the deliberations of the Supreme Court collegium of five senior most judges in the appointment of judges or lawyers should be made public, the top court ruled that it should be decided on a case-to-case basis keeping in mind the larger public interest.
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