HIDDEN ASSETS IN THE IVORY TOWER
- RAJEEV DHAVAN
Judges enjoy the opaqueness of their ivory tower. They are hugely powerful, having added to their armoury of power through the public interest law (PIL) movement, which has long since ceased to grow from the people. The power hunger continues. We can no longer presume that judges are above temptation. Chief Justice Bharucha’s deprecatory, but flamboyant, estimate - that 20% (1 in 5) of judges are corrupt - has not been dislodged from the public imagination. At all levels, judges can be rude, hasty and arbitrary – or even corrupt. This is not just the view of losing litigant or the frustrated lawyer. Fali Nariman’s frank advice: we have to take judges as we find them. But, judges cannot hide behind ivory curtains and demand confidentiality and judicial immunity from everything, including disclosing information which every public servant must disclose. The reason is obvious: immunity leads to impunity.
Over the last one year, public confidence in the judiciary is falling. The UP crisis of 2007-2009, alleging that a Supreme Court judge, High Court judges and District Court judges had received benefits from siphoned off employee funds, shook the nation. The Punjab crisis of 2008-2009 astounded the public. On 13 August 2008, a Rs. 15 lakh bribe intended for Justice Nirmal Yadav found its way to an innocent Nirmaljit Kaur – ignoring, as we must, saucy stories about the misadventure. A huge land deal was involved. In 2009, the CBI intimated the need for prosecuting Yadav. Nothing happened. In 2002, the State Chief Justice’s (Saharya) report deprecated the conduct of Justice Mehtab Singh Gill. In April 2006, the Vigilance Department taped two conversations between the judge and private persons. Earlier three Punjab and Haryana judges were taken off work. Justice Amarbir Singh Gill was asked to proceed on leave before retirement. Justice M.L. Singhal was absolved. The third was Justice Mehtab Gill. After this, nothing happened.
There were proceedings against Justice Shamit Mukherjee of the Delhi High Court, who resigned in 2003. In Madras, in 2009, Justice Reghupati disclosed he had been approached by a Minister. Recently, the Supreme Court denied Justice Kannadasan a post-retirement job because he was under suspicion, and not confirmed as a permanent judge of the High Court of Madras. This is the tip of the iceberg. Internal mechanisms of transfer of judges to other High Courts, non-allocation of work, or early retirement have not worked. Sometimes the wrong people are transferred, such as Justice Roy to Sikkim.
What will work? First: we cannot pretend we do not have a corruption problem in the judiciary. Second: secret informal solutions to deal with corruption and wrong behaviour by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and other Chief Justices may continue; but they offer no real solution – in practice or theory. Third: what embarrasses judges is their financial lives being placed in the public domain – through the media. Fourth: a practical solution has to be found which will confront the real problem than misplaced notions of judicial self-embarrassment.
At present, some of the judges have a halfway house answer to these embarrassing facts – being more concerned about personal self-protection than public confidence in their work. On 7 May 1997, a Chief Justices’ conference declared that all judges should declare their assets to the CJI. Some did. Most did not. Successive CJIs have never examined the declaration given. The defaulters went scot free. So, the entire experiment of voluntary declarations failed. Judges did not keep their promise – in some cases not at all; in others without annual restatements of assets.
By 2009, the entire enthusiasm for transparency failed. On 6 January 2009, when the RTI Commission decided that the declarations of judges be revealed by the CJI, the Supreme Court rushed to the High Court to get an injunction order from Justice Ravinder Bhatt which he granted on 20 January 2009. So voluntary disclosure and RTI have both failed – all the more so because Attorney General arguing for the court hid behind the fact that the solemn promise of the judges of 7 May 1997 did not have the force of law!
Now, we have the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill 2009, which no one is happy with. Attorney General Vahanvati thinks “corruption in the judiciary is over-blown by the media”. On 1 July 2009 the CJI opposed the declaration of assets being made public-seeking some kind of procedural immunity. This was reiterated in an interview of 4 July. The Bill itself denied the declarations the disinfectant of candour, transparency and exposure to the public domain. On 20 July 2007 Law Minister Moily seemed to accept this pressure to accede to the CJI’s view.. On 21 July 2007, a suggestion was attributed to the cabinet that the declaration to the CJI be reposed in the President (which means the Cabinet). This was like taking milk to the cat. On 3 August 2009, a stormy debate followed in the Rajya Sabha. Arun Jaitley objected to clause 6 of the Bill on non-disclosure to the public and immunity from enquiry or query. He lambasted the government for leaking the Bill to the judiciary before introducing it before Parliament, which the government denied. MPs on all sides (eg. Brinda Karat, Jayanthi Natrajan, D. Raja and others) demanded a rethink. The irrepressible Ram Jethmalani called the Bill “a conspiracy in corruption”. Faced with a possible defeat in the votes, Law Minister Moily deferred the introduction of the bill.
We have to discuss this on principle. Principle I: Every public servant – judicial, executive, legislative or otherwise should declare assets, including receiving any presents from anybody, as a matter of public duty. Principle II: To support a system of such declarations, the voluntary duty should be supported by a statutory duty. Principle III: All declaration of assets of the public servant should be published and accessible through RTI, subject to exclusions which in the case of judges relates to the judicial decision making process. Principle IV: Since such declarations are similar to income and related tax returns, the declaration should also be sent to the tax department. Principle V: There can never be immunity from prosecution, but investigations and prosecutions should be subject to the sanction of the Chief Justice of India for High Court and Supreme Court judges; and the Chief Justice of the High Court for the lower judiciary. Investigations can be made by a special agency. Principle VI: Mechanisms must exist for informal investigations ordered by the CJI and other Chief Justices of High Courts. But the existence of such mechanisms cannot provide impunity or immunity from prosecution. Principle VII: A Judicial Commission is necessary with powers and mechanisms for appointments, investigation, reprimand, punishment and removal which will eventually be done through the impeachment process.
It is the judiciary that has taught us the value of freedom of information for governance. For judges to exclude themselves from RTI or object to bringing these declarations of assets in the public, is a volte face in the wrong direction.