Pendency of Bills in Tamil Nadu | Day 3: Governor cannot withhold bills indefinitely, says Supreme Court

Pendency of bills before Tamil Nadu Governor

Today, a Division Bench led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, with Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra heard arguments against the Tamil Nadu Governor withholding assent to bills passed by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. 

Previously, on 20 November 2023, the Bench had adjourned the proceedings after learning that the pending bills were re-passed by the legislative assembly for reconsideration. In today’s proceedings, it was revealed that the Governor referred the bills to the President of India on 28 November 2023. 

Senior Advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi appeared on behalf of the Tamil Nadu government. Attorney General R. Venkataramani appeared for the Union of India.

Singhvi: “Repassage was a futile exercise”

Singhvi began by narrating the sequence of events. He stated that the Governor sent the bills back to the Tamil Nadu assembly on 13 November 2023. As per procedure, the Tamil Nadu assembly re-passed the pending bills. The Governor then referred them to the President. This development was communicated to them only a day before the hearing, on 30 November 2023. 

Singhvi argued that Article 200 gives the Governor three choices: assent to a bill, withhold assent, or refer it to the President of India. He asserted that the Governor can only exercise one of these options. When a bill is re-passed, the Governor is obligated to give their assent. Singhvi argued that the Governor cannot both withhold and subsequently refer bills to the President. This would render the act of re-passing the bills by the assembly a futile exercise.

Notably, when a Governor refers a bill to the President of India, she is not bound by a time limit to accept the bill.

Venkataramani: Bills were not sent back to the legislative assembly 

Venkataramani, adding a new twist to this bureautic drama, argued that the Governor’s act of withholding assent doesn’t necessarily entail sending the bill back. According to his version of facts, on 13 November 2023 the Governor never specified the need for the reconsideration of the bills. He only communicated the withheld assent. CJI Chandrachud demanded a copy of the communication, to which Venkataramani clarified that it was not under dispute. This is inconsistent with Singhvi’s events where he said that the bills were returned to the assembly on 13 November 2023.

Venkataramani submitted that he views the scope of Article 200 from a different perspective. He stated that while sending a bill back involves sharing recommendations and changes, withholding assent is a distinct option. It appeared that the Attorney General was pointing out that there is a fourth option available for the Governor, which is not expressly found in the Constitution. 

Singhvi responded that Venkataramani’s interpretation could potentially lead to bills lingering in limbo indefinitely. He read aloud the Supreme Court’s order from 20 November 2023, which noted the adjournment of proceedings due to the bills being re-passed (on 18 November 2023). Singhvi highlighted that Venkataramani never objected when the legislative assembly re-passed the bill. “Was the assembly passing a ghost?”, Singhvi thundered.

CJI Chandrachud: Governor has only three alternatives under Article 200

CJI Chandrachud, after a lengthy discussion with his brother judges, appeared sceptical about Venkataramani’s submission. He underscored that the Governor—as per Venkataramani’s interpretation—effectively wields the power to “kill the bill.” Pointing to the three options outlined in Article 200, he stated that these are the sole alternatives available to the Governor. He dismissed the notion of a fourth option, as suggested by Venkataramani, citing the Supreme Court’s precedent in State of Punjab v Principal Secretary to the Governor of Punjab (2023). 

In State of Punjab, the Supreme Court ruled that the Governor must mandatorily inform the state legislature to reconsider a bill “as soon as possible” after withholding it. The judgement, also authored by CJI Chandrachud, highlighted the significance of the phrase “as soon as possible,” stating, “Failure to take a call and keeping a Bill duly passed for indeterminate periods is a course of action inconsistent with that expression.” 

CJI Chandrachud further noted that the Union Government neither protested nor challenged the re-passage of the bill during the hearing that occurred two days after the re-passage. Additionally, the Governor had the option to refer the bills immediately to the President, rather than withholding them. He proposed that the Governor should “invite” the Chief Minister for a discussion on this matter to find a workable solution. 

The Court will hear the case again on Friday, 8 December 2023. Venkataramani will argue that withholding a bill and sending it back are distinct options available to the Governor under Article 200.