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Opening collegium to RTI will destroy judicial independence: Attorney General

Advocate General K.K. Venugopal. File   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

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, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal submitted on Wednesday.

Addressing a Constitution Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, Mr. Venugopal asserted that were the RTI to 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. Mr. Venugopal represents the Supreme Court’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), who is the authority tasked to respond to RTI queries related to the court.

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.

After nine years, the appeal is now being heard by the Constitution Bench. The Bench is hearing the broad question whether it would be deleterious to judicial independence to bring the collegium under RTI.

Opening collegium to RTI will destroy judicial independence: Attorney General
 

Mr. Venugopal asserted that pushing the collegium under the public spotlight through RTI would “destroy” judicial independence.

“Mr. Attorney, you are saying that if information is given under RTI, various entities, from judges to the government, will feel shy to voice their opinions,” Justice Gogoi noted, by way of going over the AG’s argument. “Besides, the career, family and even continuance in office of a person against whom adverse remarks were made would be ruined,” he said, summing up Mr. Venugopal’s submissions.

 

“A person has self-respect… Reputation is more precious than life itself,” the AG agreed.

“But the information [sought under RTI] is used to make an appointment in a public office, is it not?” Justice Gogoi asked. To this, Mr. Venugopal responded, “It depends on the nature of the public office.”

Elaborating on some of the reasons to exclude the collegium from the purview of RTI, Mr. Venugopal said: “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, Mr. Venugopal said the right to free speech was, however, subject to reasonable restrictions.

Disclosure of assets

The AG said even disclosure of personal assets of judges under RTI was an “unwarranted intrusion” into their privacy.

“Some judges may have submitted their assets. Some not. ‘Information’ under RTI means something in material form — like a document, memo or a circular — and something which is already existing in the possession of a public authority. Here, in cases of judges who have not submitted their assets, a third party is not asking for an existing document. In fact, he wants the judge to compute his assets and liabilities and arrive at a final figure,” Mr. Venugopal submitted.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 2:22:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/opening-collegium-to-rti-will-destroy-judicial-independence/article26727170.ece

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