In a path-breaking verdict, the Delhi High Court today held that the office of the Chief Justice of India came within the ambit of the RTI Act and rejected a Supreme Court appeal saying judicial independence is not a judge's personal privilege but a responsibility cast upon him.
The 88-page verdict is being seen as a personal setback to CJI KG Balakrishnan, who has consistently been maintaining that his office does not come under the transparency law and hence cannot part with information like disclosure of judges' assets under it.
Holding that CJI is a public authority under the Act, a full bench headed by Chief Justice A P Shah said judges of the superior courts should make public their assets as they are not "less accountable" than the judicial officers of the lower courts who are bound by service rules to declare assets.
The Bench dismissed the plea of the Supreme Court which had vehemently opposed bringing CJI's office within the purview of the Act on the ground that it would encroach into its judicial independence.
"Judicial independence is not the personal privilege or prerogative of the individual Judge. It is the responsibility imposed on each Judge to enable him or her to adjudicate a dispute honestly and impartially on the basis of the law and the evidence," it said.
Today's verdict came on an appeal filed by the apex court which challenged the order of a single judge of the High Court on September 2 holding that the CJI is a public authority and his office came within the purview of the RTI Act.
The High Court said that higher the judge is placed in the judicial hierarchy, greater is the standard of accountability and stricter the scrutiny.
"If declaration of assets by a subordinate judicial officer is seen as essential to enforce accountability at that level, then the need for such declaration by judges of the constitutional courts is even greater," it said turning down the plea that Supreme Court judges are not bound to declare their assets.
Giving a wider interpretation to the transparency law which was hailed as "the most significant event in the life of Indian Democracy", the Court said that right to information was part of fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 14 (right to equality), 19(1)(a)(freedom of speech) and 21 (right to life) of the Constitution.
"The source of right to information does not emanate from the Right to Information Act. It is a right that emerges from the constitutional guarantees under Article 19(1)(a) as held by the Supreme Court in a chain of decisions. The Right to Information Act is not repository of the right to information," the court said.
The court said that the standards of judicial behaviour, both on and off the Bench, are normally extremely high.
"For a Judge, to deviate from such standards of honesty and impartiality is to betray the trust reposed to him... A judicial scandal has always been regarded as far more deplorable than a scandal involving either the executive or a member of the legislature. The slightest hint of irregularity or impropriety in the court is a cause for great anxiety and alarm," the unanimous judgement passed by three-judge bench, also comprising Justices Vikramajit Sen and S Muralidhar, said.
In its appeal, the Supreme Court registry had contended that the single judge had erred in holding that the CJI's office comes within the ambit of the transparency law and had interpreted its provisions too broadly which were "unnecessary" and "illogical".
The apex court registry, which is going to challenge this judgement before the Supreme Court, also contended that judges cannot be put under public scrutiny as it would hamper their functioning and independence.
"We cannot expose our judges to public scrutiny or inquiry because it would hamper their functioning and independence," Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati, appearing for the apex court registry, had contended.
As public opinion mounted on the assets issue, the CJI and other judges of the Supreme Court on November two voluntarily declared their assets by putting the details on the official website.
In its landmark verdict, the High Court observed that a legislator or an administrator may be found guilty of corruption without apparently endangering the foundation of the State.
"But a Judge must keep himself absolutely above suspicion, to preserve the impartiality and independence of the judiciary and to have the public confidence thereof," the Bench said.
"A judiciary of undisputed integrity is the bedrock institution essential for ensuring compliance with democracy and the rule of law. Even when all other protections fail, it provides a bulwark to the public against any encroachments of its rights and freedoms under the law," it said.
Following is the chronology of Judges' assets declaration case:
Nov 11, 2007: RTI activist Subhash C Aggarwal files a plea in the Supreme Court seeking information on judges' assets.
Nov 30, 2007: Information denied in the reply to him.
Dec 08, 2007: First appeal filed at SC's registry against the denial of information.
Jan 12, 2008: First appeal dismissed by SC's registry.
March 5, 2008: Aggarwal approaches CIC.
Jan 6, 2009: The CIC asks the SC to disclose information on Judges' assets on the ground that CJI's office comes within the ambit of RTI Act.
Jan 17, 2009: SC moves Delhi HC against CIC order.
Jan 19, 2009: The Delhi High Court stays the CIC order and asks the noted constitutional expert Fali S Nariman to assist it in deciding the legal issue. Nariman, however, refuses to assist the court saying that he is of the view that Judges must declare their assets and he would not be able to be impartial in the case.
Feb 26, 2009: SC says that declaration of assets by its judges to the Chief Justice are "personal" information which cannot be revealed under the RTI Act.
Mar 17, 2009: SC says that its judges are not averse to declaring their assets and Parliament can enact a law pertaining to such declaration but it must be ensured that the law is not misused.
Mar 24, 2009: HC says that Judges cannot be treated like politicians on asset declaration
May 1, 2009: Delhi High Court Bar Association moves impleadment application in HC saying that Judges should voluntarily declare assets.
May 4, 2009: SC says too much transparency can affect independence of judiciary.
May 4, 2009: HC reserves order on SC plea.
Sep 2, 2009: Single Bench of High Court upholds CIC's order saying that CJI's office comes within the ambit of RTI Act and judges' assets be made public under the transparency law.
Oct 5, 2009: The Apex Court challenges single bench verdict before division bench.
Oct 6, 2009: HC agrees to give an urgent hearing to the Supreme Court's petition.
Oct 7, 2009: HC admits the appeal and constitutes a special three-judge bench to decide the issue.
Nov 12, 2009: HC observes that the resolution passed by the Supreme Court judges for declaring their assets to CJI is binding on them.
Nov 13, 2009: HC reserves judgement on the appeal.
Jan 12, 2010: HC says that the office of CJI comes within the ambit of the RTI Act.
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