August 5, 2009 5:23:33 am
It takes some doing for the CPMs Brinda Karat,the ruling Congresss Jayanthi Natarajan,and the BJPs Arun Jaitley,not to mention maverick-in-chief Ram Jethmalani,to agree on anything. This is the doing of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill,denounced by its variegated critics as placing the judiciary above the rule of law. The bill has a tortuous history. In 1997,the Supreme Court passed a unanimous resolution that judges would declare their assets to their chief justice. But more than a decade later,when faced with an inquiry under the Right to Information Act,the judiciary refused to answer,holding the 1997 resolution to be non-binding. In the furore
that followed,Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan stated that he had no objection to judges declaring their assets,as long as a statute mandated this,and as long as judges were not belittled with unproven smears. Prompt came the government reply: the bill mandates that judges declare their assets to the chief justice and to the government,but and this is the crucial caveat not to the general public. This exemption has enraged MPs,whose raucous protests led the law minister to defer introducing the bill in the Rajya Sabha on Monday.
It is understandable that incensed MPs who have to make public their own assets accuse the judiciary of wanting to be above the law. Their argument is that keeping judicial assets from public gaze is not only against the right to information implicit in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution,but it also violates the right to equality (why should judges be treated differently?). But even those devoted to transparency must concede one point: judges have a peculiar disadvantage. When allegations are made against MPs,they can call press conferences,even sue the smearer. But by virtue of their position,judges simply cannot do that; they will find it difficult to reply to accusations as would most other citizens.
The governments attempt to balance these competing concerns has provoked wrath across party lines. As the bill is
re-examined in committee,there are other balancing acts worth looking at special legislation,exclusive of contempt laws,dealing with attempts to smear judges,for example. The concerns of MPs and judges need not be a zero-sum game. A consensus is still within reach.
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