Land-ing trouble

Should information on a judge’s assets be made public?

Written by The Indian Express | Published:January 19, 2009 1:05 am

Gavel,gown and tie — those we know about. But what else do our Supreme Court judges own? The story begins in 1997,where an informal resolution of the Supreme Court required judges to declare their assets,in private,to the chief justice. Recently,the Central Information Commission held that under the Right to Information Act these private declarations of judges were not so private any more. They were open to public scrutiny. The current Supreme Court chief justice disagreed,and in an unprecedented step the Supreme Court registrar filed an application before a lower court — the high court is the sole appellate authority under the RTI Act — to quash the CIC order.

But the story has come full circle. The very chief justice who passed the informal resolution in 1997 — former Chief Justice J.S. Verma — has indicated that he thinks the assets of Supreme Court judges are very much in the public domain; there is no constitutional bar to disclosing this. Justice Verma is known for his legal acumen as well as unimpeachable integrity. As is the current Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan,who decisively acted against allegations of corruption,even to the extent of initiating inquires and recommending impeachment. Which is why his decision to oppose the public declaration of assets has puzzled commentators.

The Supreme Court registrar argues that such information is not covered under the act. Besides,information on judicial assets is a private matter; the disclosure to the chief justice was not mandatory. But as Justice Verma points out,the assets of the lower judiciary are anyway open to public scrutiny. Why should the higher judiciary be any different? He also sees some irony in the very same Supreme Court being at the forefront of demanding greater transparency from politicians and bureaucrats. The current chief justice has gained a reputation for promoting judicial transparency. He needs to again consider the issue of judicial assets being made accessible under the RTI Act.

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