Among the four sworn in as Supreme Court judges by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi on Monday is Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, who, exactly 10 years ago as a Delhi High Court judge, dismissed a Supreme Court appeal and declared the Office of the Chief Justice of India subservient to the Right to Information regime.
Justice Bhat, along with Justices V. Ramasubramanian, Krishna Murari and Hrishikesh Roy are the first to be sworn in after the judicial strength of the Supreme Court was increased from 31 to 34.
But for Justice Bhat being part of history is nothing new. In September 2009, as a Single Judge Bench, he declared the Chief Justice of India a “public authority” under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Rejecting an appeal, the first of its kind, by the Central Public Information Officer of the Supreme Court, he held the CJI’s office has a duty to disclose the details of personal assets of other apex court judges.
“All power – judicial power being no exception – is held accountable in a modern Constitution. Holders of power too are expected to live by the standards they set, interpret, or enforce, at least to the extent their office demands,” Justice Bhat had told the Supreme Court in his 72-page judgment of 2009.
The judgment said there was “no clue” that the RTI Act exempted the CJI from its ambit. In fact, it does not even spare the President of India. Besides, Justice Bhat wrote that a “judge’s independence, paradoxically imposes duties on him.”
The judgment said that a judge whose decisions could impact peoples’ lives, property, liberties, individual freedoms as well as interpret duties and limitations placed upon state and non-state agencies has an obligation to disclose his or her personal assets to someone or an authority.
The ruling was on an RTI request made by activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal in the Supreme Court for the complete correspondence between the Collegium and the government on the appointments of Justices H.L. Dattu, A.K. Ganguly and R.M. Lodha.
The Central Information Commission ruled in favour of Mr. Agarwal. The Supreme Court appealed in the Delhi High Court.
Justice Bhat’s judgment was later upheld by a three-judge Bench of the Delhi High Court. In November 2010, the Supreme Court appealed to itself. In August 2016, the case was referred to a Constitution Bench. A five-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Gogoi finally heard and reserved the appeal in April 2019.
“Nobody wants a system of opaqueness, but in the name of transparency we cannot destroy the institution of judiciary,” Chief Justice Gogoi had observed on the last day of hearing.