The Supreme Court on Friday stayed an order passed by the Chief Information Commissioner directing its Registry to furnish information it has about a Union Minister who allegedly approached Justice R. Reghupathi of the Madras High Court to influence his decision in an anticipatory bail plea.
A Bench of Justices B. Sudershan Reddy and Deepak Verma also stayed another CIC order asking the Registry to furnish to RTI activist S.C. Agrawal information and documents relating to the correspondence between the then Union Law Minister and other constitutional authorities, together with file notings, on the appointment of Justices H.L. Dattu, A.K. Ganguly and R.M. Lodha to the Supreme Court.
The applicant alleged that these judges superseded three Chief Justices of High Courts — Justices A.P. Shah; A.K. Patnaik (now elevated to the Supreme Court) and V.K. Gupta — despite objections by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Bench stayed the CIC’s November 24 orders after hearing Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati for the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court and Prashant Bhushan, counsel for Mr. Agrawal. It issued notice to Mr. Agrawal returnable in three weeks, and gave two weeks’ time thereafter for filing a rejoinder.
The AG pleaded for a stay stating important questions of law were being raised. However, Mr. Bhushan contended that the CPIO could not have directly filed the appeal in the Supreme Court without moving the Delhi High Court. He said: “The Supreme Court, which favoured the transparency law for others, was stepping back when it comes to itself, sending a wrong impression.”
Justice Reddy said: “It was not a question of [the court] stepping back. When the other side says that some important question of law needs to be examined, then the appeal has to be heard. You can take it from us that the issues raised in the petition will be considered objectively.”
The CPIO, in the two special leave petitions, submitted that the Delhi High Court had reserved verdict on the appeal relating to disclosure of assets by judges. “This is an issue of far-reaching consequences and substantial questions of law of general public interest and interpretation of the RTI Act with reference to the judiciary which have to be ultimately and conclusively determined by the Supreme Court itself as the apex court of the country.”
On information pertaining to the Union Minister, the SLP said: “The applicant under the RTI Act has a right under Section 2(j) only in respect of information which is held by or under the control of a public authority with the sanction of any law or a provision having the force of law. In the instant case, the information sought for is not at all held [by the CJI] pursuant to the mandate of any law. In these circumstances, there was no right to information under Section 2(j) whatsoever.”
On appointment of judges, the SLP raised the important question: whether the CJI holds information pertaining to the appointment of judges in a fiduciary capacity attracting exemption under Section 8(1)(e) of the Act?
The appellant said the consultation process and the primacy of the opinion of the CJI were the core of judicial independence. This “demands that the consultation process should be conducted in an atmosphere of sober analysis unaffected by competing pressures. The impugned orders which give a completely narrow meaning and interpretation to the term ‘fiduciary’ without appreciating and understanding the position of the Chief Justice of India in the Indian judiciary is contrary to the basic structure i.e., the independence of the judiciary.”
The SLPs sought quashing of the CIC orders.