- Court gives split verdict on whether rebel MLAs should stay disqualified
- Decision referred to third judge, till then MLAs will stay disqualified
- It means ruling AIADMK, one short of majority, won't face floor test soon
The decision has been referred to a third judge. With no timeline declared so far, the ruling party can call it a good day in court.
Chief Justice Indira Banerjee said Speaker P Dhanapal's decision last September to disqualify the 18 legislators just before a trust vote last year was reasonable, but Justice M Sundar believed it violated the law so should be cancelled.
On petitions filed by the rebels, the High Court had earlier kept the floor test on hold and directed that the seats if the 18 legislators be kept vacant until its decision.
The ruling AIADMK has 116 lawmakers, excluding the Speaker, in the 234-member assembly, one short of the majority mark.
If the disqualification is cancelled, the state government faces collapse. The rebel lawmakers are loyal to sidelined party chief VK Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, who was elected recently as an independent lawmaker from RK Nagar - the constituency left vacant after former chief minister J Jayalalithaa's death in 2016.
Recently, three more lawmakers extended their support to Mr Dhinakaran, bringing down the AIADMK's numbers to 113 - four short of a majority - should there be a trust vote.
The opposition DMK has 89 lawmakers and Mr Dhinakaran is the lone Independent legislator.
The government will not be under any threat if the disqualification is confirmed, as the effective strength of the house will come down to 215. But by-elections have to be held for 18 seats, which will be a challenge for the feud-hit AIADMK.
For now, the government should be relieved for the status quo.
The lawmakers were disqualified after they wrote to then Governor C Vidyasagar Rao withdrawing support to Mr Palaniswami and asking for his replacement. They had made it clear they were not withdrawing support to the AIADMK government.
But the ruling faction said the rebels had to be punished because they had tried to topple the state government and therefore had violated the anti-defection law.
The AIADMK has been caught in an intense power struggle since former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's death. Jayalalithaa's lifelong companion Ms Sasikala took over the reins of the party weeks after her death in December 2016, and tried to be Chief Minister but had to go to jail after being held guilty of corruption. The party split into two factions led by Mr Palaniswami and veteran Jayalalithaa loyalist O Pannerseelvam or OPS.
Last year, the EPS and OPS factions patched up after a power-sharing deal was worked out, in which Mr Panneerselvam was made Deputy Chief Minister.
Mr Dhinakaran, after winning the RK Nagar by-election with a huge margin, claims he represents the real AIADMK.