It is a matter of satisfaction that the pressure of democratic public opinion has made the highest court in the land do the right thing: decide, 'in principle,' to disclose the assets of Supreme Court judges on the court's official website. The opposition within sections of the higher judiciary to mandatory public disclosure of judges' assets – a measure to promote judicial transparency and check judicial corruption – threatened to weaken public confidence in the judicial system. Although Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan declared that High Court judges were free voluntarily to declare their assets and that a consensus on the issue was being evolved in the Supreme Court, his reservations about mandatory public disclosure were hardly a secret. Even something as innocuous as a Central Information Commission order asking whether Supreme Court and High Court judges were declaring their assets to their Chief Justices in accordance with the judicial code of conduct was stonewalled. The Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of challenging the CIC's order in the Delhi High Court. It was such resistance to assets disclosure that led the central government to introduce the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill in Parliament with a self-defeating clause. Fortunately, politicians cutting across party lines forced the Bill's withdrawal after objecting to Clause 6, which stated that any declaration by a judge to his or her Chief Justice would not be public and that no judge would be subject to “any query or inquiry” in relation to its contents. Is a Bill necessary now? The answer is yes because what the Supreme Court judges have decided on is voluntary public disclosure of assets. If some members of the higher judiciary hold out, what can be the remedy other than a uniform law?
Mandatory public disclosure of judges' assets is not a radical idea. In the United States, the Ethics in Government Act 1978 makes it mandatory for certain classes of federal officials — including federal judges — to make public financial disclosures. The Act reformed a disclosure system for federal officials that used to be based on internal reporting within each agency or department. Many other countries, including Sri Lanka, require judges to make periodic declarations of their assets. Two High Court judges have already made voluntary disclosures, one of them in response to a letter urging such disclosure by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reform, a public-spirited organisation that has done sustained work on such issues. Many judges who have nothing to hide evidently feel inhibited by the absence of a framework that mandates the accurate and public disclosure of assets. The judiciary that endorsed the Election Commission's bid to introduce transparency and accountability and mandate the public declaration of assets of candidates to elected office cannot apply a different standard to its own functioning. Now that the Supreme Court judges have decided to do the wise thing, High Court judges must waste no time in following their lead.