Probity, not prestige

The Pioneer Edit Desk

Let judges make public their assets

With a number of High Court judges expressing their willingness to make public their assets, the Chief Justice of India, Mr KG Balakrishnan, should now end his opposition to the Supreme Court providing this information and bring to an end the unnecessary and unedifying litigation over the disclosure of the assets of Supreme Court and High Court judges. Though the Supreme Court has been listed as an authority that is accountable under the Right to Information Act, it has been attempting to evade the legislative intent of placing the judiciary under this law. No holder of constitutional office, not even the President or the Prime Minister, has been exempted from the RTI Act's purview, which makes the Supreme Court's attitude unreasonable. Citizens have been agitating for transparency regarding the assets of judges for years to ensure the judiciary is not tainted by judges whose integrity is questionable; the demand has been fuelled, in large measure, by the dubious conduct of some judges. In any event, the people of India have the right to know the details of the assets of judges, just as they have the right to know the details of the assets of other constitutional functionaries. The issue was highlighted when the Central Information Commission directed the Supreme Court Registry on January 6 to provide information about the disclosure of assets by judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court that they have made to their respective Chief Justices. Instead of accepting this direction gracefully, and thus setting a new standard of ethics, the Supreme Court filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, challenging the directive. Chief Justice Balakrishnan, when giving the reasons for litigating before the High Court, said that information about judges' assets was personally kept with the Chief Justices. This is a surprising view to take because the Supreme Court and its head are not two distinct public authorities. The CIC has rightly held that they are one and the same, and that information available with the Chief Justice must be deemed to be available with the Supreme Court.

It can hardly be that Chief Justice Balakrishnan is not aware of the importance of the disclosure of assets by judges. There is a May 7, 1997 Supreme Court resolution which unambiguously states that every judge should make a declaration of his assets in the form of real estate or investments held by him in his own name or in the name of his spouse or any person dependent on him within a reasonable time of assuming office and, in the case of sitting judges, within a reasonable time of the resolution's adoption. That the Supreme Court had accepted the importance of the disclosure of such information is revealed by the personal mail that Chief Justice Balakrishan had written to the Chief Justices of the 21 High Courts, seeking its full implementation and upholding the principles adopted by the Supreme Court that include the accepted norms, guidelines and conventions observed by judges. These are considered essential for an independent and strong judiciary. The view of the High Court judges who are in favour of making public their assets has been communicated to Chief Justice Balakrishnan, who is now considering a proposal to make it mandatory for judges to declare their assets to the President who is their appointing authority. While not disputing this option, it would be in order to reiterate that the best course open for the judiciary is for judges to make public their assets. This is not about prestige but probity.