NEW DELHI: Bowing to intense public pressure as well as revolt in the ranks, Supreme Court judges on Wednesday finally agreed to disclose their assets and liabilities and post the details on the official website of the apex court.
However, the landmark decision has a caveat attached to it: the judges would not entertain any query relating to their assets and liabilities and how their wealth grew or decreased.
The decision to make a public disclosure of their assets and liabilities as well as those of their spouses and dependents was taken by Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan and the judges at a full court meeting, marking a major climb down on the part of higher judiciary.
The outcome of the meeting was influenced by the growing pressure from within for disclosure of assets with Justice D V Shylendra Kumar of Karnataka High Court publicly taking issue with the CJI for his stand that the judges should not be required to disclose their assets to the public.
As a matter of fact, the two-hour long full court meeting discussed the fallout of the article written by Justice Kumar, as it came around to let the details of their assets and liabilities be posted on the website www.supremecourtofindia.nic.in .
While the view was revised on Wednesday, the meeting did not completely disregard the argument that public disclosure of assets would expose judges to malicious litigation, hence the rider about inquiries. The full court meeting decided that while the details would be posted on the Supreme Court’s official website, the Registry of the apex court would not entertain any queries on the details. This means, the judges would not answer queries relating to their assets and liabilities or justify how their wealth grew or decreased.
The judges have been declaring these details to the CJI since 1997 under an internal resolution. But these remained a closely guarded secret with neither the head of the judiciary nor the apex court entertaining any query, even under the RTI Act, relating to these details.
While the resistance was seen as out of step with the growing trend favouring transparency, the judiciary dug in its heels, fighting off pressure. The annoyance with the resistance of the judiciary found expression in Parliament when the government was forced to withdraw a legislation that, with a proposal to keep the assets of judges out of the ambit of the RTI Act, appeared to be slanted in favour of judiciary’s anti-disclosure stance.
The decision was greeted by attorney general G E Vahanvati and former AG Soli J Sorabjee. Vahanvati was cautious in his reaction and said, “While I welcome this path-breaking step, I remain apprehensive about the possibility of a judge being harassed because of the disclosure.”
Sorabjee’s welcome was unqualified. “Better late than never,” he said. Terming the decision “salutary and important”, the former AG said this would erase a lot of misgivings by litigants and lawyers about the integrity of judges.
He said the apprehension of judges that it could lead to harassment through frivolous litigation by people with vested interest was unfounded. “If a judge mis-declares his assets and liabilities, it should be construed as an misconduct that could lead to his impeachment,” he said.
The entire process of posting the wealth details of the Supreme Court judges would take some time as the judges have to sign the minutes of the meeting and then the secretary general has to upload the data onto the website.
So far, declarations by judges are made voluntarily under a resolution adopted in full court meeting of the Supreme Court on May 7, 1997, which reads:
“Resolved further that every judge should make a declaration of all his/her assets in the form of real estate or investments (held by him/her in his/her own name or in the name of his/her spouse or any person dependent on him/her) within a reasonable time of assuming office and in the case of sitting judge within a reasonable time of adoption of this resolution and thereafter whenever any acquisition of substantial nature is made, it shall be disclosed within a reasonable time.
“The declaration so made should be to the Chief Justice of the court. The Chief Justice should make a similar declaration for the purpose of the record. The declaration made by the judges or the Chief Justice, as the case may be shall be confidential.”
However, with the full court meeting taking a decision to make public their wealth, the last sentence of the 1997 resolution would no longer be in force.