Govt drops introduction of bill on Judges’ assets

Govt drops introduction of bill on Judges’ assets New Delhi: Government was on Monday forced in the Rajya Sabha to drop introduction of a Bill that would have protected the assets of judges from being made public in the teeth of severe objections from the Opposition and reservations from a Congress member.

Members of BJP and CPI(M) strongly objected to introduction of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) bill, 2009 when Law Minister Veerappa Moily got up in the house, calling it violation of Constitution and promoting a "class of citizens".

They were particularly severe on Clause 6 of the measure which in the words of noted lawyer Ram Jethmalani "a conspiracy of corruption".

Congress member Jayanti Natarajan joined them saying the bill may violate the Right to Information law and suggested it may be referred to a standing committee so that the Opposition objections could be considered.

The clause states that declaration made by a judge to the competent authority shall not not be made public or disclosed and shall not not be called for or put into question by any citizen, court or authority.

Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley, another noted lawyer, there cannot be two Art 19 (1)(a) (of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression)--one for the entire body of persons desirous of contesting elections and holding public office and the other already in public office.

Jaitley said "people have the right to know what their (those contesting elections) assets are but those already in public offices and higher judicial institutions, people have no right to know what their assets are.

"Now this dual interpretation of Art 19 (1)(a) cannot be sustained. Clause 6 should be reconsidered."

CPI(M) member Brinda Karat strongly felt that the bill violated the basic feature of the Constitution--that of equality before law.

"This bill promotes a class of citizens namely judges who are put above that basic feature of the Constitution. Therefore, clause 6 of the Constitution is ultra vires of the Constitution and I would request the government withdraw the bill at this stage," she said.

Jethmalani said the bill amounted to saying the judges need not not disclose their assets but other people's assets should be disclosed.

"But not ours. This privileged position, which judges are seeking from the executive, makes them totally subservient to the executive and demolishes the whole vision of our founding fathers that independence of judiciary is a must. You are destroying the independence of judiciary. This will be a conspiracy in corruption," he said.

CPI(M) member Sitaram Yechury felt that the opinion of the House should be taken before introduction of the bill. The minister should not go into the merits of the bill at the stage of introduction.

Sensing the mood, Moily beat a hasty retreat saying the government would bring the Bill after evolving a consensus.

In the 250-member House with an effective strength of 234, the Congress-led UPA does not have a majority on its own and may have to depend on outside allies like SP and RJD to get the measure passed.

Earlier, Moily said judges, unlike other classes of people, the civil servants or political executives, faced a limitation when it came to replying to allegations made against them.

"Sometimes petitions may be used as an instrument intimidate and hold them to ransom. These are all things which can be debated," he said.

Disagreeing with members' contention that the bill was violative of Art 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, Moily said "it is after 60 years we are making a certain attempt" to bring accountability in the judiciary.

Opposition to a bill at the introduction stage is a rare occurrence that prompted Deputy Chairman K Rehman Khan to cite an earlier ruling and to seek the opinion of the House.

The Bill proposes that the Judges of the Supreme Court will furnish details of their assets and liabilities to the Chief Justice of India, while High Court Judges will sumbit the information to their respective Chief Justices.

Moily dismissed suggestions that the bill was circulated among the judiciary before being brought to the house. At present, there is only an internal mechanism created by Supreme Court on the declaration of assets by judges.

"There is no law (to deal with the issue)," he said adding "we found a lot of corruption in many places in judiciary. We need to deal with that".

Observing that government can hardly do anything with regard to corruption cases in judiciary, Moily said in 60 years not not a single case of impeachment has been successfully concluded in either House of Parliament.

He also referred to the case of a Calcutta High Court against whom the Rajya Sabha Chairman has constituted a committee on a petition for impeachment.

"The government is a mute spectator," the Minister said to which BJP member Ravi Shankar Prasad said "do something".

He said the government proposes to bring a comprehensive judges enquiry bill that will deal with the issue of corruption on a much wider scale.

"We are working on a roadmap on judicial reforms," he said, adding national consultation would be held later this month.

D Raja (CPI) said the proposed legislation cannot be accepted and nobody was above the law.

Bureau Report