The majority of the country’s high court judges has turned down a bill that would make it compulsory for them to declare their financial assets.
The Judges Inquiry Bill, 2006, said that not only the assets of judges, but also those of their families would have to be declared to the chief justice.
The high court judges, ignoring a decade-old Supreme Court resolution favouring the proposal, turned down the bill.
The resolution unanimously passed on May 7, 1997, at a meeting chaired by then Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma and attended by 22 Supreme Court judges, had said: “Every judge should make a declaration of all assets in the form of real estate or investments held in their name or their spouse and any person dependent on them, to the Chief Justice.” A copy of this resolution is in possession with Hindustan Times.
This provision later became part of the Judges Inquiry Bill, which was introduced in Parliament in December last year.
Among the judges who attended the 1997 meeting were Justices M.M. Punchhi, A.S. Anand, S.P. Bharucha, B.N. Kirpal and V.N. Khare — all went on to become CJIs.
A decade later, eight of the 11 high courts that responded to a parliamentary standing committee letter on the bill, said they wanted it withdrawn. The Supreme Court and eight other high courts did not even write back.
“Since the sitting judges of the Supreme Court and all the high courts are stakeholders in the proposed bill, it has been decided to call for their views,” the standing committee’s letter said.
In reply, seven high courts unanimously opposed the bill. These were the high courts of Allahabad, Calcutta, Punjab and Haryana, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
Eight judges of Madhya Pradesh High Court wrote to the Chief Justice opposing the bill. Only the Orissa High Court expressed willingness, but with some changes.
While the Chief Justice of Chhattisgarh High Court was in favour of implementation of the bill, the majority of judges suggested changes.
The Andhra Pradesh High Court refused to give its opinion, saying “it was not proper to for a high court to give any views on a proposed legislation of Parliament”.
Committee chairman E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan said he had expected a positive response. “For the first time in parliamentary history a standing committee had sought the opinion of the Supreme Court and all the high courts. We wanted detailed arguments, but some of the courts did not reply and some others felt it could affect judicial independence.”
Former CJI Verma, who had moved the resolution, said the high courts’ opposition should not come in the way of passing the bill. “An effective mechanism for enforcing judicial accountability is the need of the hour. Therefore, opposition to the bill is unexplained and does not matter. If judges had started to declare their wealth way back in 1997, though for a short period only, there is no excuse for not doing it now,” he said.
He said the bill should be passed without delay and not be diluted under pressure. “If candidates contesting elections are required to declare their assets, why should the judges be kept out of it?” he asked.