Abraham Thomas | New Delhi
Challenges CIC order asking judges to reveal assets
In an unprecedented development, the Supreme Court has filed a petition before the Delhi High Court challenging the full-Bench decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) asking judges to reveal information about declaration of assets under Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The petition filed by the SC's Registrar on Friday challenged the January 6 decision of the CIC full-Bench, which laid down that judges cannot claim exemption under RTI to withhold information regarding disclosure of their assets.
The CIC also directed the office of the Chief Justice of India to furnish information within 10 days to an RTI applicant who was refused information on whether the SC judges disclose their assets to the CJI.
A Full Court Resolution passed by the Supreme Court on May 7, 1997 required every judge to make a declaration of assets in form of real estate or investments held in their names or in the name of their spouse and any person dependent on them to the Chief Justice. Based on this, an RTI applicant, SC Aggarwal, wished to know if judges had complied with the Resolution, and whether any high court judge had declared assets to their respective Chief Justices.
Taking strong objection to the CIC order, the SC Registrar's appeal made a distinction between the apex court as an institution and the office of the Chief Justice of India. It argued on the basis that the RTI applied to public authorities making them bound to supply information in the public domain. But in the present case, it suggested that neither is the office of the CJI a "public authority" and nor is the information relating to judges' assets in the "public domain".
The Supreme Court Registry, which supplied a copy of the Resolution to the RTI applicant but refused to part with any further information, maintained its earlier stand that the practice of declaring assets is purely an in-house mechanism between the judges of the Supreme Court and the CJI. It is not mandatory to declare and no provision under the Constitution or any law requires judges to declare so.
On the other aspect of distinguishing the office of the CJI from that of the Supreme Court, the appeal stated that the CIC erred in treating both as one. While the Supreme Court is a public institution, the office of the CJI is a constitutional post and cannot be treated as a public office. In these terms, information given to CJI gets treated as his personal information, which he is not entitled to disclose. This protection is available under the RTI Act itself, the appeal stated.
Seeking an urgent plea to set aside the CIC order, the appeal termed it as being "excessive" and "without jurisdiction". Taking umbrage against the CIC's suggestion that the CJI's office ought to have responded to the RTI request in case the SC Registry was not possessing information relating to the judges' assets, the SC plea held that the CJI office is "independent" of the Supreme Court Registry and does not form part of it.