Day 3 Oral Hearing: Maharashtra MLA Suspension

Maharashtra MLA Suspension

On the third day of hearings in the challenge to the suspension of 12 BJP MLAs from the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, the Supreme Court observed that a one year suspension threatened democracy. Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, leading the three judge Bench observed that the Assembly’s decision to suspend must have a rational purpose if it leaves constituencies unrepresented for long periods of time. The Bench was unconvinced by Senior Advocate Aryama Sundaram’s argument that the Assembly’s power to suspend MLAs was not limited in any way by the Constitution or Parliamentary laws. 

Mr. Sundaram, appearing for the Maharashtra government, argued that the Assembly’s decision could not be called irrational in the absence of constitutional limits on its power to suspend. The Bench noted that even if express limits did not exist, the Assembly was limited in the exercise of its powers by the ‘spirit of parliamentary law’. Justice C.T. Ravikumar commented that unlimited powers to suspend could be misused by governments with slim majorities to suspend opposition members for long periods, skewing the House’s decisions. Khanwilkar J stated that the purpose of suspension was to maintain decorum in the Assembly and any suspension beyond the ongoing session would be prima facie unreasonable. 

Mr. Sundaram further stated that Article 190(4) of the Constitution and Section 151(A) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 limited the powers of the Speaker and the Privilege Committee of the Assembly. The Assembly, he argued, was distinct from the Speaker and the Privilege Committee. Its power to suspend was innate and did not arise from these provisions. 

Mr. Sundaram suggested that even if the provisions placed a limit on the maximum period for which the Assembly can suspend an MLA, the Maharashtra Assembly was not in contravention of the limit. He stated that the 60 days limit in Article 190(4) counted days on which the Assembly was sitting in session—the Maharashtra Assembly had only been in session for six days in the seven months since the MLAs’ suspension. 

Mr. Sundaram interpreted s 151(A) of the Representation of People Act to mean that an MLA’s seat must be filled through re-election after it was declared vacant without permission for six months by the Assembly. The vacancy, therefore, would not automatically arise from the MLA’s absence. This means that the Assembly has discretion to decide whether to fill the seats of absentees. In the case of the 12 MLAs, the Assembly had not decided to use its discretion. The right to be represented, Mr. Sundaram argued, was not absolute. He stated that in Raja Ram Pal, the Supreme Court had held that if citizens elected a representative prone to misconduct, they would have to suffer the consequences. 

The Bench will hear the MLAs’ response to Mr. Sundaram’s arguments tomorrow. It is expected to reserve judgment on the matter after tomorrow’s hearing. The Bench’s judgment will determine the scope of a State Legislative Assembly’s suspension powers. This judgment will have important implications on the future use of these powers, especially in Legislative Assemblies where the majority is slim.