The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to expunge the oral observations made by the Madras High Court against the Election Commission of India (ECI) and said it hopes "the matter can rest with a sense of balance which we have attempted to bring".
The Madras High Court had recently observed, in one of its case hearings, that the ECI "was singularly responsible for surge in COVID-19 cases and officers of ECI should be booked for murder charges".
The ECI had moved the apex court for expunction of remarks or oral observations against it.
"These oral remarks are not a part of the official judicial record, and therefore, the question of expunging them does not arise," a two-judge bench of the apex court, headed by Justice Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and also comprising Justice M R Shah, said, in its judgement.
"It is trite to say that a formal opinion of a judicial institution is reflected through its judgments and orders, and not its oral observations during the hearing. Hence, in view of the above discussion, we find no substance in the prayer of the EC for restraining the media from reporting on court proceedings," the Supreme Court said.
The court also said that the courts cannot stop the media from reporting.
It said the judicial orders of the Madras High Court did not contain those remarks (observations) as a part of the judgment.
"A delicate question of balancing the powers of two constitutional authorities has raised the larger issue of freedom of speech in India," Justice Chandrachud said.
"Freedom of speech and expression covers freedom to cover court proceedings too," he said.
He said state high courts are constantly in touch with the ground reality, while talking about the current pandemic and these are constitutional courts.
The Supreme Court said that open access to court is the cornerstone of the constitutional freedom. Article 19- 1 (A) covers freedom of press.
With the advent of technology, the reporting of media has been on real time and observations cannot be construed as judgement, the court said.
"This Court must strike a balance between reproaching the High Courts or lower courts unnecessarily, so as to not hamper their independent functioning. This court must also intervene where judges have overstepped the mark and breached the norms of judicial propriety. We are tasked with balancing the rights of two independent constitutional authorities," the top court judgement said.
It said High Courts perform an intrinsic role as appellate courts and as courts of first instance in entertaining writ petitions. "They are often the first point of contact for citizens whose fundamental rights have been violated. High Courts are constantly in touch with ground realities in their jurisdictions," the court said.
"We must emphasize the need for judges to exercise caution in off-the-cuff remarks in open court, which may be susceptible to misinterpretation. Language, both on the Bench and in judgments, must comport with judicial propriety. All that needs to be clarified is that the oral observations during the course of the hearing have passed with the moment and do not constitute a part of the record," the court said.
It said the Election Commission has a track record of being an independent constitutional body which shoulders a significant burden in ensuring the sanctity of electoral democracy.
"We hope the matter can rest with a sense of balance which we have attempted to bring. This court stands as a staunch proponent of the freedom of the media to report court proceedings. This we believe is integral to the freedom of speech and expression of those who speak, of those who wish to hear and to be heard, and, above all, in holding the judiciary accountable to the values which justify its existence as a constitutional institution," the court said.
( With inputs from ANI )
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