Disqualification: Ending inaction

Disqualification: Ending inaction

Speakers had refused to act on many disqualification requests because the matter relating to the court’s powers to issue directions for timely disposal of such cases was pending before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s order setting a time limit of three months for Speakers of state assemblies to decide on disqualification petitions under the anti-defection law will hopefully ensure effective implementation of one aspect of the law. Speakers have for long used the absence of a specific provision in the law for timely disposal of disqualification pleas to sit on the matter indefinitely that seemingly helped the ruling party. But the court has now held that the Speakers of both the state assemblies and Parliament have to decide on disqualification petitions within three months except in an extraordinary circumstance. It also held that courts have the powers to intervene if the proceedings are delayed. This is an important order that closes the option for inaction on the part of a Speaker who fails to disqualify a member of the opposition who defects to the ruling party. 

The judgement came in a petition challenging the failure of the Speaker of the Manipur assembly to disqualify a Congress MLA who joined the BJP after the 2017 elections in the state and is now a minister. The court has told the Speaker to take a decision in the case and the petitioner to report back to it if the decision is not made. Speakers of many other states have also sought cover under the immunity from judicial scrutiny for their decisions under the anti-defection law to act unfairly in defection cases, swayed by political considerations. This has made the anti-defection law a mockery in many instances. Since there is already scope for judicial review of the Speaker’s decision after it is made, there is now a reasonable assurance of the disqualification provision of the law not being wantonly subverted.  

Speakers had refused to act on many disqualification requests because the matter relating to the court’s powers to issue directions for timely disposal of such cases was pending before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. But the court has now noted that a Constitution bench of the court in 2007 had already ruled that there is scope judicial intervention when presiding officers fail to exercise their powers. While the court’s order may have settled the issue of delay on the part of presiding officers to take decisions, the larger question of the Speakers’ role in the scheme of the anti-defection law remains unaddressed. The court has suggested that Parliament should think of putting in place a permanent and independent tribunal of former judges or some other mechanism to replace the Speaker as the adjudicating authority under the anti-defection law. The issue may be debated, but it is unlikely that there will be a decision on it.  

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