Bow to verdict

The Delhi high court’s decision that the Chief Justice of India is a ‘public authority’ under the Right to Information Act and that the citizens have the right to obtain information provided to the CJI by the apex court judges is a landmark decision that will only enhance the status of the higher judiciary. The decision of a division bench upholds an earlier ruling by a single bench against which the supreme court had gone in appeal. It is unfortunate that the supreme court had contested the decision taken by the Central Information Commission that the court should provide information to an RTI applicant on whether the judges had filed the details of their assets before the CJI, and even gone in appeal against the single judge’s ruling. The CJI and the supreme court have persistently taken a negative position on the matter which went against the norms of transparency and accountability that they prescribed for other public offices.

The high court’s ruling has rightly rejected the supreme court’s contention that the CJI holds the information provided by the judges in a fiduciary capacity and in confidence. The issue of trust does not arise here because the asset details are not personal information in a private relationship. The high court has also done well to clarify that the CJI is on the same plane as other judges. That there cannot be different standards for judicial officers of subordinate courts, who have to disclose their assets, and judges of the higher judiciary should have been clear to the CJI even without the high court’s observation.

More importantly, the court has also seen the right to information as part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.While these are clear even to laymen, it is inadvisable for the supreme court to go to itself in appeal against the ruling. That would make the court an appellant and judge at the same time and would detract from the credibility of its decision if it overturns the high court ruling. After the controversy over the judges’ assets started, supreme court judges have voluntarily publicised the details of their assets, claiming that a 1997 resolution of the judges on the matter is not binding. The supreme court should accept the high court decision and parliament should make disclosure of assets mandatory by law, if that is required even after the high court decision.

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