Pendency of Bills in Tamil Nadu | Day 4: Find a way out of this impasse, Supreme Court tells Tamil Nadu Governor and State Government over pending billsPendency of bills before Tamil Nadu Governor
Today, the Supreme Court briefly heard arguments on the dispute between the Chief Minister and the Governor of Tamil Nadu over pending bills.
Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi appeared for the state of Tamil Nadu. Attorney General R. Venkataramani appeared on behalf of the Governor.
On 31 October 2023, the government of Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court challenging Governor R.N. Ravi’s decision to keep various Bills and other proposals submitted by the state government pending indefinitely.
The state government pointed out that there were four categories of “cases” which had been kept pending by the Governor with no response.
The first category of cases related to 12 bills that had been passed by the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly between 2020 and 2023. Article 200 of the Constitution states that after the passage of a Bill by a state Legislative Assembly, or in case of a bicameral legislature, both Houses of the state, the Bill ought to be presented to the Governor. The Governor shall then have either of three options: to assent to the Bill, withhold assent from the Bill, or reserve the Bill for consideration of the President.
Article 200 also mentions that the Governor, after presentation of the Bill, must return it “as soon as possible” along with a message requesting the House to reconsider specific provisions within, or the entirety of the Bill. If the Bill were to be passed again and resent to the Governor, the Governor is obligated to not withhold it.
Tamil Nadu has said that the 12 Bills sent to the Governor between 13 January 2020 and 28 April 2023 amend legislations that established state universities in Tamil Nadu.
Eight of the 12 Bills seek to empower the state government to appoint the Vice Chancellor of the universities instead of the Governor, one Bill seeks inclusion of a government nominee on a selection panel for the appointment of the Vice Chancellor, two Bills seek to grant the government the power of inspection and enquiry instead of the Chancellor of the university, three Bills seek inclusion of the Finance Secretary in the Syndicate of all Universities (except three government universities), and one Bill seeks to establish a government Ayurveda university. One Bill also seeks complete control of the state government over the appointment of Vice Chancellors of all state universities (barring the University of Madras) instead of the Governor.
The second category of pending cases pertains to files submitted by the state government between 10 April 2022 and 15 May 2023 which seek sanction for prosecution of public servants for various crimes involving acts of moral turpitude, under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
Further, the government has argued that 54 files on premature release of prisoners, submitted to the Governor between 24 August 2023 and 28 June 2023 have remained pending.
Finally, various proposals for the appointment of members for the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission have remained pending. Article 316 of the Constitution states that the Chairman and other members of a State Public Service Commission are to be appointed by the Governor.
On 10 November 2023, the Bench found that the pendency of the proposals and Bills was “a matter of serious concern.” It issued notice to the Union of India through the Home Ministry and requested the Attorney General or Solicitor General to assist the Court. It listed the matter for 20 November. Following this, a record of proceedings was forwarded to the Attorney General and Solicitor General, although notice could not be issued to the Union, since the Tamil Nadu government had not paid the process fees. No documents were filed as of 17 November.
On November 20, the Court learned that the Governor had “withheld assent” (the constitutional term for sending the Bill back to the Assembly) from 10 of the Bills. CJI Chandrachud observed that the Governor had only now withheld assent to the Bills after the order of the Court on 10 November, even though the Bills had been pending since January 2020. Notably, following the Governor’s “withholding”, the Legislative Assembly had readopted the Bills. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, while moving the resolution to reconsider the Bills, stressed on the point that, under Article 200, the Governor “shall not withhold assent” when a Bill is repassed by the Assembly.
The Attorney General noted that since the Bills pertained to the Governor’s powers in appointment of Vice Chancellors, some “reconsideration was required.” When the Court pointed out that Bills had been pending since January 2020, the Attorney General argued that R.N. Ravi had only been appointed in 2021, to which the Court responded that the “issue is not whether any particular Governor delayed but whether in general there has been a delay in exercising constitutional functions.”
CJI Chandrachud stated that the question he wished to answer was whether, under Article 200, the Governor was mandated to resend a Bill to the legislature, or whether he can simply say that he was withholding assent. The petitioners argued that such a “pocket veto” did not exist—if the Governor is allowed to withhold bills indefinitely, “governance will be paralysed.” The CJI also asked the petitioners whether the Governor could send the Bill to the President after it had been re-passed by the Assembly. The petitioners argued that the Governor had no such power.
The Bench further recorded that out of the 181 Bills submitted to Governor R.N. Ravi, 152 have received assent, five were withdrawn by the state government, nine were reserved for the assent of the President, assent was withdrawn from another nine Bills, and five Bills received in October 2023 were under consideration.
Singhvi: Important Constitutional Issue over pendency of bills
Singhvi stated that the Supreme Court was dealing with a “purely constitutional issue” of whether a bill re-passed by the legislative assembly can be subsequently referred to the President. The previous hearing revealed that the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu had re-passed bills withheld by the Governor. When a bill is repassed, the Governor is bound to give his assent. However, the Governor referred the bill to the President—who is not obligated by a time limit for granting assent. The Supreme Court noted that the Governor can either withhold a bill or refer it to a President—not both.
Today, as the hearing began just 10 minutes before the Court closed, Singhvi suggested that the Supreme Court can take up the matter substantially in January 2024.
CJI: Let the constitutional heads break the deadlock
In the previous hearing, the Supreme Court had suggested that the Governor should “invite” the Chief Minister to discuss the dispute. A letter circulated by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on 13 December 2023 showed that he was willing to communicate with the Governor.
Today, CJI Chandrachud stated that the two bodies could meet to discuss all outstanding issues to start the process of breaking the deadlock. He highlighted there will be “some way out of this impasse not only for now but for the future,” adding that there needs to be a channel of communication to prevent other controversies. The Chief stated that the communication should continue while the Supreme Court adjudicates the present case.
The matter is expected to be heard mid-January 2024.