Sobering men of law

All judges, ministers and civil servants are accountable to the law.

Sobering men of law

The decision of the Supreme Court judges to declare their assets in public domain has led to strengthening people’s faith in judiciary more than ever before. Buckling under pressure from public, fellow judges and political parties, the top court judges set the ball rolling for their subordinates in high courts and lower courts to come clean with their holdings.

There was a public uproar in the past few months, ever since the Central Information Commission issued direction for making public the information on judges’ assets, which otherwise used to be kept in a closet with the Chief Justice of India. One of the main reasons for the public resentment was that the citizens of India not only want their judiciary to be fair, but also transparent in their conduct and dealings.

The declaration of assets by the judges at all levels, a norm in many countries of the world, including the United States, would pave the way for the reinstatement of people’s faith in the judiciary, which was otherwise eroded due to their refusal to do so and some allegations against a few judges such as Justice Soumitra Sen of Calcutta High Court, Justice Nirmal Yadav of Punjab and Haryana High Court and a few judges of Allahabad High Court in relation to PF scam.

Spirit not willing

However, the rider in the unanimous decision that no queries will be entertained on the judges’ assets has robbed the spirit of the declaration, which was widely welcomed by the people. Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan said that he still did not dispel the apprehension that the information made public would not be used by litigants to harass the judges.

He said, “The office of the Chief Justice is privy to many information like privileged communication between various constitutional authorities, including the President, complaints against judges, decision of the collegiums etc. How can all these information be disclosed and kept with the Supreme Court registry?’’

However, the principles of transparency and accountability demand full commitment by those who adhere to such path. The apprehension that some people might misuse the disclosure to embarrass the judges might be valid, but enough safeguards with stringent law for punishment and fine should act as deterrent.

The government withdrew the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill in the Rajya Sabha after the MPs objected to a provision that sought exemption for judges from being subjected to any query over the disclosures. Now, the UPA government has decided to drop the Bill and introduce Judges Inquiry Bill that would take care of all aspects of transparency and accountability of the judiciary. The earlier Judges Inquiry Act of 1968 provides only for impeachment of judges. 

The Supreme Court judges were declaring their assets since 1997 according to a full bench decision during the tenure of Chief Justice J S Verma, but it was not made public. The recent decision is also based on the resolution taken in 1997, but only addition is that it would be placed on the website.
The pressure on the Supreme Court judges was mounted only after a sitting Karnataka High Court judge, Justice D V Shylendra Kumar, defied the Chief Justice of India’s stand when he said, “It’s a misnomer to think that the judges of the superior courts are not ready to disclose their assets.” The judge followed it up by putting his asset details on his personal website as the High Court website is not made accessible for such declarations. 

Earlier, former chief justice Verma and former Attorney General Fali S Nariman had expressed their opinion when the Supreme Court registry challenged the direction of the CIC before the Delhi High Court. Nariman even refused to assist the High Court as amicus curiae (friend of the court) to arrive at a decision on the contentious issue.
It is not that the judges of the top court will be the first to declare their assets; politicians declare their assets before the Election Commission at the time of filing nomination for any election. Even the bureaucrats in India seek permission before acquiring their assets. The Income Tax returns filed by any public servant in the country is also a means of declaration of assets.

Not a first

In most of the advanced countries, including the United States, France etc., there is a practice of annual declaration of assets in public domain. Even a judge in the US would have to declare a $100 addition to his or her assets in the annual declaration to the Chief Justice, which is always in public domain.

The Government’s avowed intent to initiate judicial reforms was preceded by  Subhash Chandra Agrawal, a textile trader in New Delhi with a BE and management degree, filing an application under the RTI Act seeking information about the assets of the judges. Agrawal has paved the way for the landmark decision, which has shaken the mighty judiciary, which had stonewalled itself for long.


Chronology


* 1997 : A full court meeting of the Supreme Court judges led by Chief
Justice J S Verma makes it mandatory for all Judges to declare their assets to the Chief Justice of India.
* Oct 12, 2005:– Right to Information (RTI) Act enacted facilitating public to access government information.
* Nov 2007: Subhash Chandra Agrawal files application before the Supreme Court registry seeking information on assets of the Judges, which was refused. He subsequently approaches Central Information Commission (CIC) challenging the decision of the SC registry.
*Jan 6, 2009 : CIC directs SC to
furnish the information and asks CJI to keep all information with the Secretary General for public purpose.
*Jan 16, 2009 : Supreme Court
rejects the order of CIC and challenges it in Delhi High Court.
*March 24, 2009 : Delhi High Court stays the execution of the CIC order.
*Aug 3, 2009 : Government forced by the opposition BJP and Left parties to withdraw the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill from Rajya Sabha.
*Aug 21, 2009 : Karnataka High Court Judge D V Shylendra Kumar
questions the authority of CJI to oppose judges declaring their assets.
* Aug 26, 2009 : Supreme Court Judges unanimously decide to make their assets public and place it on Supreme Court website.
*Aug 28, 2009 : CJI reiterates SC out of purview of RTI Act. 

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