Justice Verma on Justice Bhat’s judgment and the judges’ assets controversy

Justice Bhat’s judgment on declaration of assets by judges continues to be in the limelight, and has drawn high praise from the former CJI, Justice Verma, in an op-ed that appears in today’s Express. In praising Justice Bhat, Justice Verma calls this yet another instance of a situation where “the high courts have shown the right path where the Supreme Court dithered.” (Though he doesn’t explicitly mention this, the historical precedent he cites is interesting because that involved a situation where he himself was one of the High Court judges who “took the right path” while the Supreme Court “dithered” in delivering the infamous ADM Jabalpur decision.)

In today’s op-ed, Justice Verma joins the rapidly increasing group of eminent figures who have been critical of CJI Balakrishnan’s handling of this issue. Justice Verma goes further, to apportion responsibility to Attorney General Vahanvati by recalling historical precedents where his predecessors in office refused to go along with problematic instructions issued by their clients.

Justice Verma has been a consistent advocate for full disclosure of assets by judges. While recognising Justice Bhat’s expressed concerns about the privacy rights of judges, Justice Verma has this to say:

The one area of concern voiced by many judges who are in favour of disclosure needs mention. They want a safeguard against harassment by unscrupulous persons and disgruntled litigants who are known to make false and scurrilous allegations even against some honest judges for ulterior motives. Even though the apprehension is genuine, it has to be accepted as an occupational hazard, which is common to all public functionaries. Moreover, the additional contempt power is available to the judges as a deterrent. In any case, this aspect can be taken care of, and can not be a justification for not declaring the assets subject to public scrutiny for legitimate reasons. In the current environment of waning credibility of the higher judiciary, with specific allegations of corruption based on prima facie authentic materials even against a few of the highest, it is in the judiciary’s own interest to be fully transparent and above suspicion.

To me, this is a slight modification of Justice Verma’s earlier stance. He now seems to be making a temporal argument, relying on the current perceptions of the judiciary, to assert that such a measure is required in the times we live in. Other judges too seem to share this view, given that the Madras High Court as a whole recently decided to declare assets of current judges, without seeking any intermediate safeguard mechanism. These are valid questions to be borne in mind when formulating regulatory policy. However, another important question to be considered is whether it is advisable to formulate a long-term regulatory policy based on temporal considerations such as the current perception of our judiciary.

In his conclusion, Justice Verma joins the chorus of voices seeking a comprehensive legislative scheme in respect of this issue. Given that Justice Bhat’s judgment may yet be appealed (a course of action which Justice Verma, like others before him, strongly advises against) and the uncertain status of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, 2009, it seems the larger issues behind this controversy will stay with us for a while.

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