The Chief Justice of India is a public authority and his 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 and three future Chief Justices were part of the constitution bench that agreed that transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand. The judges reaffirmed a 2010 Delhi High Court judgment and dismissed appeals by the Secretary General and Central Public Information Officer of the Supreme Court.
1/ “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 judgement that said the Chief Justice’s office comes under the transparency law.
2/ But while deciding to give out information from the office of the Chief Justice, the Right to Privacy is an important aspect and has to be balanced with transparency, the judges said.
3/ “Judicial independence and accountability go hand in hand,” said the judges, but transparency does not undermine judicial independence. RTI, they cautioned, cannot be used as a tool of surveillance.
4/ Apart from Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the bench featured Justices NV Ramana, DY Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna. While the Chief Justice and Justices Gupta and Khanna wrote one judgement, Justices Ramana and Chandrachud have written separate verdicts.
5/ Justice Chandrachud said the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy a constitutional post and discharge a public duty. Justice Ramana said there should be balancing formula for the Right to Privacy and the Right to transparency, and the independence of the judiciary should be protected from any breach.
6/ On whether the deliberations of the Supreme Court collegium comprising 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. The bench said that only the names of judges recommended by the Collegium for appointment can be disclosed, not the reasons.
7/ 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 that bringing the top judge’s office within the RTI Act would “hamper” judicial independence.
8/ 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”.
9/The lawyer had accused the judiciary of what he called an “unfortunate and disturbing” reluctance in supplying information under the RTI Act. “Do judges inhabit different universe,” he had asked.
10/ 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 the 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.