New Delhi: Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi does not own a flat or a building, a vehicle and has not taken any loan. Justice S.A. Bobde — the senior most judge after Gogoi — has two inherited properties, two gold rings and no vehicles. The two senior Supreme Court (SC) judges are among seven to have voluntarily revealed their assets to the public.
The apex court, which began functioning Monday after the summer break, has 31 judges now — full strength for the first time in the past decade.
Besides Chief Justice Gogoi and Justice Bobde, the other five who have declared their assets are Justice N.V. Ramana, Justice Arun Mishra, Justice R. Banumathi, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Justice Ashok Bhushan.
Among those yet to declare their assets on the court’s official website are Justice U.U. Lalit and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud — both are to become CJIs in the future.
Commenting on how less than one-fourth sitting judges have declared their assets publicly, eminent jurist Upendra Baxi said, “Asset disclosure should be the norm and not an exception.”
The SC, in the meanwhile, is yet to deliver its judgment on whether the top court and the CJI’s office come under the purview of the Right to Information Act.
Former information commissioner Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu said, “Judges of the apex court are also public servants. Whatever exceptions have been carved out for them, whatever strategies that officials have come up with to prevent disclosure of assets is against the spirit of the Lokpal Act.”
The 1997 resolution
A full court resolution on 7 May, 1997 had decided that judges would reveal their assets to the CJI and these shall be kept confidential.
This resolution required every judge to “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”.
In January 2009, the Central Information Commission (CIC) allowed RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal’s plea seeking information about judges’ assets.
Rejecting appeals filed by the secretary general of the apex court, a single judge as well as a three-judge bench of the Delhi High Court also ruled in his favour. The high court said the Chief Justice’s office is a “public authority” within the purview of Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Justice Ravindra Bhat had then said RTI was a “powerful beacon, which illuminates unlit corners of state activity, and those of public authorities which impact citizens’ daily lives, to which they previously had no access”.
Soon after the Delhi High Court’s 2009 judgment, former CJI K.G. Balakrishnan, along with 20 other SC judges, decided to voluntarily make their assets public. He also stated that the judges were following the 1997 resolution.
Keeping with the tradition, asset details of 49 out of 51 retired judges who had presided over the top court since 2009 are also available on the SC website, barring those of Justice Amitava Roy and Justice RV Raveendran.
Speaking to ThePrint, Justice Balakrishnan said, “Some judges were not willing at that time. But I decided that till all of them are ready, we will not declare. Today, nobody is trying. If the CJI requests all judges to declare their assets, they will.”
Meanwhile, the top court collegium also began making its resolutions public in October 2017, as an offshoot of the Supreme Court’s National Judicial Accountability Commission judgment. Justice J. Chelameswar had then differed from the majority opinion in this judgment and raised issues of non-transparency in appointments.
CJI’s office under RTI Act purview?
The Delhi High Court’s judgment was challenged in the SC by its own registry in 2010. The matter was initially heard by a two-judge bench led by Justice (retd) B. Sudarshan Reddy and later referred to a three-judge bench.
In August 2016, it was referred to a five-judge constitution bench of the top court – comprising Gogoi, Justice N.V. Ramana, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjiv Khanna.
The judgment in this case was reserved in April this year.
Former information commissioner Acharyulu said information pertaining to property was “not private knowledge”. He argued that “only bank account numbers are private information”.
Pointing out exceptions under the RTI Act, he said any piece of private information had to be disclosed under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act if there was public interest involved. “Why should somebody hide anything, unless there is something that needs to be hidden?” Acharyulu asked.