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Reports suggest that the Supreme Court is preparing to appeal the January 12 decision of the Delhi high court placing the office of the Chief Justice of India within the ambit of the Right to Information Act. In the aftermath of the Delhi HC decision — itself a three-judge affirmation of a single-judge HC order — legal experts such as former Chief Justice J.S. Verma had urged the SC to not appeal. For the apex court to sit in judgment over its own fate would make for an unseemly spectacle. Reports indicate that the SC thinks otherwise; an appeal is likely to be filed.
The immediate consequence of the Delhi HC judgment was on judicial assets. In 1997, a “restatement of values on judicial life”, passed by a full court of the SC, stated that judges would declare their assets to the chief (information that would be held in the CJI’s office). By holding that this 1997 declaration was mandatory and that the CJI’s office was under the RTI Act, the Delhi HC ensures that the public have a right to know what their judges own. (Last November, SC judges made their asset details public, but insist it is voluntary.) The Delhi HC judgment also makes a larger point: on judicial accountability and the principle that no one is above the law. That a lower court could find against the world’s most powerful was a healthy sign of intra-judicial independence.An appeal by the SC will have implications for that larger point. On the narrow question of judicial assets, the executive seems to have finally grasped the ball. The UPA government is planning to introduce the Judges (Standards and Accountability) Bill, which, reports suggest, will give statutory teeth to the 1997 Supreme Court resolution, with or without a court judgment to back it up. Certainly, the Delhi HC judgment goes beyond just the disclosure of judges’ assets. But at a time when a breeze of greater transparency is blowing through the executive and the legislature too — a breeze that’s been given velocity by the courts — the higher judiciary would have to make a considerably stronger case for being kept apart.