No exception

The government could have avoided the embarrassment of withdrawing the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Responsibilities) Bill from the Rajya Sabha if it had sensed the mood of at least the ruling party members on the bill. The bill was opposed not only by the Opposition but also by the Congress members because it fell short of the normative standards of equality, fairness and transparency. Members of the judiciary had resisted the idea of disclosure of their wealth and assets, though even a Supreme Court resolution had more than 10 years ago proposed it. Law minister Veerappa Moily announced recently that legislation would be enacted to facilitate the disclosure of assets by the judiciary. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had sought such a law. But when the minister introduced the bill, obviously after consultations with the judiciary, it clearly did not serve the purpose it was meant to have.

Clause VI of the bill provided that the declaration made by a member of the judiciary to a designated authority should not be made public or questioned by any citizen or court authority. That defeats the purpose of the disclosure. If the information, after disclosure, remains a secret and is not available in the public realm, how can it be called disclosure at all? When the assets of holders of all other public offices are subject to public scrutiny and come under the purview of the Right to Information Act, there is no reason to give a special and privileged status to judges. Any claim of singular rights in this respect goes against the constitutional mandate of equality of all citizens. The judiciary has always mandated that the laws are made equally, fairly and justly applicable to all. It should not expect an exemption for itself.

The argument that disclosures could be used to embarrass or harass judges is weak. Considering the vast powers enjoyed by the judiciary, it is doubtful if anyone would dare to question the disclosed information without sufficient and substantive grounds or make inappropriate use of it. The bill can also provide safeguards and remedial measures against such harassment. The government can hold discussions within the UPA and with opposition parties, rework the bill with provisions for full and public disclosure and go to parliament again with it. The judiciary should welcome it because openness and accountability would give the judges greater moral strength.  High positions go with high public responsibility.

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