In a huge relief to the ruling AIADMK Government, the Madras High Court on Friday dismissed Petitions seeking disqualification of Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and 10 other MLAs for having defied the party whip in February, 2017.
The Bench comprising Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice Abdul Quddhose opined that it cannot take up the role of the Speaker for deciding on a proposed disqualification under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India. It observed,
"Moreover, even though the power of a constitutional court exercising its extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of judicial review of executive or legislative actions is wide, its powers are not unlimited. The Court cannot take over the functions of the Speaker of deciding a disqualification application by giving full opportunity of hearing to the MLAs sought to be disqualified."
The Court further noted that the question whether a direction can be issued to the Speaker to disqualify MLAs was pending before the Supreme Court, and therefore, it couldn't issue such a direction.
The matter was an offshoot of factional feud in AIADMK, following the demise of former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa.
In February last year, O. Panneerselvam resigned from the post of Chief Minister and had proceeded to rebel against then AIADMK General Secretary V.K. Sasikala, who was later jailed following her conviction in the Disproportionate Assets case. Following her conviction, Sasikala had named Edappadi Palaniswami as the Chief Minister.
Thereafter, the same month, a no-confidence motion was moved against CM Palaniswami. While Palaniswami did win the vote by a margin of 122-11 with DMK being evicted and other opposition parties walking out, it did mean that 11 MLAs had voted against their own party.
A few AIADMK MLAs had then petitioned the Speaker under the Members of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly (Disqualification on Ground of Defection) Rules, 1986, seeking disqualification of the 11 MLAs.
However, in view of the Speaker's inaction on their plea, DMK whip K. Sakkarapani and four pro-TTV Dinakaran MLAs had approached the High Court, seeking such disqualification. Thereafter, transfer of these petitions to the Supreme Court was sought.
During a hearing in December, 2017, the Apex Court was, however, informed that a similar controversy posing the question whether the Court can direct the Speaker to disqualify MLAs was pending before it. It had then disposed of the transfer petitions with a direction to the High Court to not take up the prayer for issue of mandamus to the Speaker to take an action under the Tenth Schedule.
Questions before Court
The Court was now faced with the question whether, in the absence of the power to direct the Speaker to disqualify the MLAs, the Court can disqualify such MLAs under the Tenth Schedule. Answering the question in the negative, it noted that there existed several disputed question of facts in the case at hand.
With regard to allegations of bias against the Speaker, the Court opined that mere inaction on the Speaker's part would not lead to such a conclusion, observing, "In any case, the fact that the Speaker acted in haste in disqualifying 18 MLAs, but did not even issue notice in respect of the respondent MLAs cannot in itself lead to the conclusion that the Speaker has acted mala fide and/or in a discriminatory manner. Whether the Speaker, in fact, acted mala fide and/or in a discriminatory manner would also depend on facts which are hotly disputed."
It then noted the pendency of such petition before the Supreme Court and dismissed the Petitions, opining, "We are constrained to hold that even assuming that this Court might embark upon the exercise of taking over the functions of the Speaker in exceptional circumstances and even assuming that those circumstances exist, by seeking the relief of an order of this Court disqualifying the respondent MLAs, the petitioners are inviting this Court to do indirectly what it has been restrained by the Supreme Court from doing directly."