Governors cannot withhold bills passed by the state assembly: Supreme Court

Nov 21, 2023 01:48 AM IST

The governors have been accused of delaying the passage of bills, some of which have been pending for up to 26 months.

New Delhi The Supreme Court on Monday expressed its displeasure at the delay on the part of the governors in giving assent to bills passed by state assemblies, as it took up the related petitions moved separately by Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments and asked for responses of their respective governors.

The Supreme Court of India. (ANI)
The Supreme Court of India. (ANI)

The bench also said that once a bill is sent back to governor following a readoption by the assembly it acquires the status of a money bill that the governor must give his assent to.

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Read here: Tamil Nadu assembly readopts 10 bills returned by governor amid Oppn walkout

“Why should governors wait for the parties to approach the court? And then they start acting. Why cannot they perform their constitutional functions on their own?” remarked a bench led by Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud when the court heard the petitions filed by the two states, listed back-to-back.

In the petition moved by the Kerala government, the bench, which also included justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, issued notices, seeking replies from the office of governor Arif Mohammed Khan and the Union government by November 24, when the matter will be heard next. The court order recorded Kerala’s contention that of the eight bills pending before Khan, three were initially approved and promulgated as ordinances by the governor. These bills, the order added, have been pending for a period ranging between seven and 26 months. Senior counsel KK Venugopal appeared for the Kerala government.

When a similar petition filed by the Tamil Nadu government came up next, attorney general R Venkataramani appeared to assist the bench, as he handed out a note containing details of the bills and other files that remained pending with the office of state governor RN Ravi.

Senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Mukul Rohatgi and P Wilson appeared for the Tamil Nadu government, pointing out that the governor returned 10 bills to the assembly on November 16 while withholding his assent. The bills were returned by Ravi after the top court hearing on November 10, when the bench expressed “serious concerns” over governors’ inaction on bills.

Following a special session on November 18, Singhvi said, the assembly re-passed the 10 bills and sent them to the governor again for the latter’s assent. The senior counsel said that of the 15 bills mentioned in the state’s petition, five bills were sent to the governor in October.

“Our concern is really this -- our order was passed on November 10 and the bills were returned after that. Why should the governor wait for our order? January 2020 is when the oldest bill was sent to him... What was the governor doing for the last three years?” the bench asked the AG.

Responding, Venkataramani said that Ravi took over as Tamil Nadu’s governor only in November 2021. But the bench remained unimpressed with the reply, emphasising that the issue is not about any particular governor.

“The issue is not that a particular governor has delayed exercise of constitutional functions but whether there is a general delay in exercise of constitutional functions,” the bench stated in its order, adding the 10 bills have been sent back to Ravi after assembly’s readoption on November 18 and that the AG wants the court to defer the proceedings in the wake of the latest developments.

During the proceedings, Rohatgi also argued that the 10 bills were returned by Ravi without specifying any reasons of his disapproval and that his actions were contrary to the mandate of Article 200, which prescribed that the governor may, “as soon as possible” after the presentation to him of the bill for assent, return the bill together with a message requesting that the House may reconsider it. The AG, however, requested the bench not to go into this issue since the bills have already been passed again by the state legislature.

Venkataramani added that the governor has passed 152 out of 181 bills presented since 2000, and that the assents were withheld chiefly to those bills that sought to deprive the governor of the power to appoint vice-chancellors in state universities.

To this, the bench said that it would not go into the merit or the content of such bills while it recorded that the fact of the matter remains that the oldest bill pending with the governor was from January 2020. Adjourning the matter to December 1, the court said that it would want the AG to present a status report on the next date, adding the issues relating to governor’s approvals for sanctions to prosecute and remission would also be taken up in the next hearing.

The proceedings on Monday came at a time when Raj Bhavans in several states have been locked in confrontation with the elected government. In the last few months, Punjab, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have approached the Supreme Court, seeking directives to their respective governors.

While hearing a similar petition by the Punjab government against delay by the governor there in clearing bills, the apex court had on November 10 held that governors lack the constitutional powers to question the validity of an assembly session convened by the elected arm of the state. Even as the court reproached Punjab governor Banwarilal Purohit for keeping four bills pending, it expressed unhappiness with the conduct of both the Raj Bhavan and the state government.

The top court underlined that “in a parliamentary form of democracy, real power vests in the elected representatives of the people” while the governor, as an appointee of the President, is just a “titular head” of the state. But it also criticised the state government, saying its actions of keeping the assembly in suspended animation indefinitely amounted to defeating the Constitution.

“If democracy has to work, it has to work in the hands of a chief minister as well as in the hands of governors,” the court commented, as it directed that “the governor of Punjab must now proceed to make a decision” on the four bills in accordance with the Constitution.

The MK Stalin government has accused Ravi of acting like a “political rival” rather than a constitutional statesman by “inexplicably delaying or even failing to consider and assent to the bills passed by the legislature”. The state has argued that the governor was stymieing day-to-day governance in a way which was threatening to bring administration to a grinding halt.

Read here: Tamil Nadu governor returns bills sent to him, DMK govt set to adopt them again

The Kerala government, too, has taken on its governor Khan in the apex court for delaying certain key bills, some dating back almost two years. Kerala has accused Khan of acting in a manner which “defeat the rights of the people” by withholding the passage of eight bills on issues ranging from public health, higher education, Lokayukta, etc.

Earlier, in April, hours before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a petition filed by Telangana against governor Tamilisai Soundararajan for creating a “constitutional impasse” by refusing to act on several bills, the governor signed off on three bills. This petition was later disposed of even as the top court held that the expression “as soon as possible” under Proviso 1 of Article 200 has significant constitutional intent and must be borne in mind by all constitutional authorities.

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