In a path breaking ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said Parliament should "rethink" whether the Speaker of a House should continue to have powers to disqualify lawmakers as such a functionary "belongs to a particular political party".
Parliament may seriously consider amending the Constitution to substitute Speaker of Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies as arbiter of disqualification issues with "a permanent Tribunal headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court" or some other mechanism to ensure swift and impartial decisions, the Supreme Court said.
A bench headed by Justice RF Nariman took note of the role played by Speakers and inordinate delays in deciding pleas for disqualification of lawmakers and asked the Manipur Assembly Speaker to decide within four weeks the plea of a Congress leader seeking disqualification of BJP lawmaker and Manipur Forest Minister Thounaojam Shyamkumar.
Mr Shyamkumar had won the assembly polls in 2017 as a Congress candidate, but later joined the BJP government and the plea of his disqualification was still pending with the Speaker.
"In case no decision is forthcoming even after a period of four weeks, it will be open to any party to the proceedings to apply to this Court for further directions/reliefs in the matter," said the bench which also comprised Justices Aniruddha Bose and V Ramasubramanian.
A time has come when Parliament should have "a rethink on whether disqualification petitions ought to be entrusted to a Speaker as a quasi-judicial authority when such Speaker continues to belong to a particular political party either de jure or de facto", the top court said.
"Parliament may seriously consider amending the Constitution to substitute the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies as arbiter of disputes concerning disqualification which arise under the Tenth Schedule with a permanent Tribunal headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court, or some other outside independent mechanism to ensure that such disputes are decided both swiftly and impartially, thus giving real teeth to the provisions contained in the Tenth Schedule, which are so vital in the proper functioning of our democracy," it said.
The top court was hearing the appeal of Congress leader Keisham Meghachandra Singh against the Manipur High Court order. The high court had refused to direct the speaker to decide the plea for disqualification of Mr Shyamkumar on the ground that the "very same issue" whether the speaker can be directed by the courts to decide disqualification was pending adjudication before a 5-judge bench of the top court.
The election for 60 seats of the Manipur Legislative Assembly were conducted in March 2017 in which Congress Party emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats and BJP came second with 21 seats. However, a BJP led government was sworn in and Mr Shyamkumar, a Congress MLA, switched side and became a minister in the state government leading to filing of several pleas in April 2017 with Speaker seeking his disqualification under the anti-defection law.
Since the issue was pending with the speaker, the Congress leaders first went to the high court and then to the Supreme Court.
Congress leaders sought quashing of the appointment of the minister and urged the court to decide disqualification itself rather asking the Speaker to do the needful. The top court said: "It is not possible to accede to Kapil Sibal's submission that this court issue a writ of quo warranto quashing the appointment of the Respondent No. 3 as a minister of a cabinet led by a BJP government."
"Madhavi Divan (law officer) is right in stating that a disqualification under the Tenth Schedule from being an MLA and consequently minister must first be decided by the exclusive authority in this behalf, namely, the Speaker of the Manipur Legislative Assembly."
"It is also not possible to accede to the argument of Sibal that the disqualification petition be decided by this Court in these appeals given the inaction of the Speaker," the court said.