What began innocuously has fast developed into a very public spat. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah have both joined in the public debate over whether information about a Supreme Court judges assets should be made public.
Since 1997,Supreme Court judges have been declaring their assets privately to the chief justice,declarations that the Central Information Commission recently held to be in the public domain. An upset Supreme Court approached the High Court the designated appellate authority for a stay,and the High Court acquiesced on January 19. Legal technicalities notwithstanding,the issue risks becoming a referendum on judicial ethics coming at a time when there are disturbing allegations of corruption in the highest court. As former Chief Justice J.S. Verma pointed out,it makes little sense for the court to demand accountability from others,but itself keep a closed house. And in a major embarrassment,senior lawyer Fali Nariman declined the Delhi High Courts request that he be amicus curiae,as he opposed the views of the chief justice.
Indias Supreme Court is widely admired for speaking truth to power taking its role as the keeper of constitutional safeguards seriously. But that reputation has been sullied by allegations of corruption so disturbing that Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan has swiftly reacted by ordering inquiries,transferring judges,and recommending impeachment. The wide praise that he has earned for these decisive steps makes his opposition to declaring judicial assets even more puzzling. Whatever be the merits of its case,the Supreme Court risks emerging from this affair none the richer. Its not worth the bother. As the CIC pointed out,it is after all an innocuous matter.