Supreme Court: After hearing Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Supreme Court and advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal, the 5-judge bench of Ranjan Gogoi, CJ and N V Ramana, D Y Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, JJ reserved the verdict in the matter where an RTI Activist had sought disclosure of information on appointment of judges, thereby bringing collegium under RTI.
For the past decade, the Supreme Court has refused to divulge information under RTI about the collegium’s confidential communications with the government. The collegium recommends judges for the High Courts and the apex court. The Supreme Court, after losing legal battles before the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the Delhi High Court, finally had to appeal to itself to protect the collegium’s workings.
AG represented the Supreme Court’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), who is the authority tasked to respond to RTI queries related to the court. He argued before the Court that opening up the “highly-sensitive” correspondence of the Supreme Court’s collegium and its workings to the Right to Information(RTI) regime would make judges and the government “shy” and “destroy” judicial independence. He also asserted that if the RTI will be applied to the collegium, its member judges would not be able to sit back and have a free and frank discussion for fear that their confidential views may later come into the public domain.
“If reasons for his rejection come into public domain, will a judge be able to function independently? The entire future of the judge is ruined. The public, litigants lose their confidence in him. A judge whose integrity has been questioned and overlooked for appointment or elevation, is handicapped. He cannot go to the press to clear the air. Disclosure of highly sensitive communication under RTI will risk the very existence of the judicial way of functioning. So, the information should be kept confidential.”
Acknowledging that the right to know was part of the right to free speech, AG said the right to free speech was, however, subject to reasonable restrictions.
On the question of disclosure of personal assets of judges, AG argued even under RTI was an “unwarranted intrusion” into their privacy.
Prashant Bhushan’s Submissions
Arguing on behalf of RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal, advocate Prashant Bhushan said that the Court has always been on forefront of right to information and transparency. He said that even in SP Gupta judgment, the 7-judge bench said that non disclosure of information would cause greater harm to public interest. He further argued that even in the absence of RTI Act, the Court has held that candidates contesting elections should disclose their criminal antecedents.
“You have asked centre to follow transparency in appointment in other wings of the Government. You can’t claim exemption from disclosure of information relating to appointment of judges.”
He also said that people are entitled to know about appointment of judges in a democracy. He told the Court,
“you have given judgments on transparency but deny information when it comes to you.”
He also said,
“An honest officer making a decision will not be cowed down by the fear that his reasoning or decision will become public tomorrow.”
When the bench said that a person may not want the information relating to his sexual orientation to be disclosed or the fact that he/she is suffering from schizophrenia, Bhushan agreed and said that Section 10 of RTI Act that provides exemption will be applicable in such cases.
On the issue of disclosure of assets of the judges, Bhushan said that the RTI applicant is merely which judges submitted there asset details to CJI.
(With inputs from The Hindu)