Supreme Court of India (Image: Supreme Court website)

Does RTI Cover Office Of Chief Justice Of India, Collegium? Supreme Court Starts Hearing 

The Supreme Court today began hearing a decade-old case that will determine whether the office of the Chief Justice of India, deliberations in the collegium on appointments of judges, and correspondence with the government over transfers and selections are covered under the Right to Information Act.

The same RTI applicant, Subhash Chandra Agarwal, had sought this information at three occasions, and the cases landed at the Supreme Court through different routes. A two-judge bench then clubbed the matters and referred them to a five-judge constitution bench.

The top court will now decide if information can be released in three cases.

  • Information relating to appointment of three judges to the Supreme Court in 2008.

Agarwal had sought information about the deliberation in the collegium to elevate the judges. The Chief Information Commissioner allowed the application and directed the Supreme Court administration to furnish the information. The top court’s administration challenged the decision.

Appearing for the Central Public Information Officer of the Supreme Court, Attorney General KK Venugopal opposed releasing the information saying this would open a ‘pandora’s box’. He argued that the information sought is exempted under Section 8(i)(j) of the RTI Act.

  • Information regarding disclosure of the assets of sitting judges.

As of now, the declaration of assets is voluntary for sitting judges. Agarwal had approached the Chief Information Commissioner seeking to know the number of judges who had submitted their asset details to the chief justice. The CIC ruled in his favour. The verdict was challenged in the Delhi High Court by the Supreme Court’s administration and a single-judge bench in 2009 upheld the CIC’s ruling, which was reiterated by the high court in 2010. The matter then landed at the Supreme Court.

Venugopal argued that he believes it’s personal information but said he would leave it to the bench to decide on this issue.

  • The third case relates to reports of alleged attempts being made by a then union minister in 2009 to influence a Madras High Court judge.

Justice R Raghupathi of the Madras High Court, in an open court, had alleged that a Union minister, through his lawyer, spoke to him on telephone seeking favours in a case being probed by Central Bureau of Investigation, the PTI had reported in 2009. Agarwal demanded that the name of the minister should be made public. The CIC ordered the information to be released, bringing the matter to the Supreme Court.

The attorney general supported the release of this information. “A minister trying to influence a Madras High Court judge must be disclosed. It is a very serious matter.”

The two-judge bench on Nov. 26, 2010 said that these cases involve deciding a substantial question of law and referred the case to a constitution bench, which will rule on:

  • Whether the concept of independence of judiciary requires and demands the prohibition of furnishing information sought? Whether the information sought amounts to interference in the functioning of the judiciary?
  • Whether the information sought cannot be furnished to avoid any erosion in the credibility of the decisions and to ensure a free-and-frank expression of honest opinion by all the constitutional functionaries, which is essential for effective consultation and for taking the right decision?
  • Whether the information sought is exempt under Section 8(i)(j) of the Right to Information Act?

Section 8(i)(j) bars disclosure of personal information of any citizen which has no relation to any public activity or interest or would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy. The exception is when the central or state public information commissioners are satisfied that such information can be disclosed in the larger public interest.

The reference to the constitution bench was reiterated by a three-judge bench of the top court including Justice Ranjan Gogoi (now chief justice), Justice Prafulla Pant and Justice AM Khanwilkar in 2016.

Venugopal concluded his arguments today. Prashant Bhushan, who is appearing for Agarwal, will begin with his arguments tomorrow.