The Big Story: Undue delay
Judicial independence is not just about judges resisting executive interference in court appointments. Judicial independence also lies in the court’s ability to deliver justice swiftly and authoritatively, leaving no room for extraneous factors to influence the system. But when the higher judiciary drags its feet on cases of political and administrative importance, it is bound to raise awkward questions.
In Tamil Nadu, 18 Assembly constituencies have been functioning without legislators since September 18, 2017. These MLAs were disqualified because of the turmoil in the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. They belonged to the rival TTV Dinakaran faction and had been accused of spreading anti-government and anti-party propaganda. The more obvious reason, though, was that the Edappadi K Palaniswamy government’s wafer-thin majority in the Assembly. The Opposition has alleged that the 18 MLAs were disqualified with the ulterior motive of creating a false majority in the Assembly.
When a vacancy to an Assembly seat arises, the Election Commission of India is expected to fill the seat through a bye-election within six months so that residents do not suffer without a representative. The 18 legislators immediately challenged their disqualification in the High Court. The case was argued extensively for days and judgement was reserved by the bench headed by Chief Justice Indira Banerjee on January 23. However, the judgement is yet to be delivered.
In the meantime, the court went ahead with the verdict in another disqualification case that involved 11 MLAs of the O Panneerselvam faction, which in August buried its differences with Palaniswamy and merged with his faction. The High Court refused to assume the powers of the Speaker and disqualify them. In this case, the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had moved court seeking disqualification of these 11 MLAs for violating a whip and voting against the AIADMK government in a confidence motion in 2017. This judgement had been reserved in March, much after the court reserved its verdict in the 18 MLAs case.
It isn’t clear why the court chose to first dispose of a case reserved much later and why it has still not delivered its decision on the disqualification of the 18 MLAs of the Dinakaran faction, who are still opposed to the Palaniswamy government.
Over the years, the Supreme Court has provided guidelines on how to proceed when a judgement is delayed. If a verdict is reserved but not delivered for over three months, the parties have the right to move a petition seeking quick delivery. If there is a delay of over six months, the parties could ask for the case to be assigned to another bench. Undue delays in politically-sensitive matters could cast doubts in the minds of the people and prove as perilous as an attempt by the executive to influence the judiciary.
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