The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought the Tamil Nadu government's response on a petition by DMK leaders while terming as "unnecessary" the alleged inaction for almost three years of the state Assembly Speaker towards disqualification of 11 AIADMK lawmakers who voted against Chief Minister E Palaniswami during a 2017 confidence vote.
The 11 lawmakers included Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde took note of the submission of senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for DMK leaders, that the disqualification plea was moved before the Speaker in March 2017, but even after a lapse of three years no action has been taken by him.
"We think that the three years delay is unnecessary (on the part of Speaker)," said the bench which also comprised Justices B R Gavai and Surya Kant.
"Tell us whether you are going to take action. If yes, then when and how," it said, adding that the recent apex court judgement, delivered in the disqualification case of Manipur's BJP minister, was the law of the land and "holds the ground".
The bench was referring to the January 21 verdict by another three-judge bench of the apex court headed by Justice R F Nariman that held that the Speakers of Lok Sabha and state assemblies should decide disqualification petitions against legislators, especially those who defect, within a "reasonable period" of maximum three months.
On Tuesday, Sibal, who was assisted by lawyer Amit Anand Tiwari, referred to the recent judgement and said the TN speaker has not even issued notices to those MLAs even after the lapse of almost three years and moreover, the term of the assembly would end next year.
"If the disqualification plea is moved against an opposition MLA, the Speaker issues notice next day. And if such pleas are filed against the ruling party MLA, then the notice is never issued," Sibal argued.
"If Mr Sibal's submission is correct, then tell us as to when you are going to take action. We want to know this," the bench told the Advocate General of Tamil Nadu and posted the matter for further hearing on February 14.
Though the bench took note of the plea that the poll panel has been seized of the dispute pertaining to AIADMK and that MLAs had been changing sides in the state, it said that nothing stopped the Speaker from proceeding with the disqualification plea.
"These are no reasons for not acting," the bench said, adding, "Irrespective of what you think about the judgement (Manipur case), the judgement holds the field. Apart from the judgement, we think that the Speaker should not sit over the disqualification issue for so long".
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for some AIADMK lawmakers, opposed the submission of DMK and said the judgement was erroneous given the fact that a two-judge bench had earlier referred to a larger bench the question whether the Speaker can be directed to act in such a situation.
Rohatgi said the judgement in the Manipur case cancels the reference made earlier to a larger bench and it was not permissible under the law and rules.
The bench heard the law officer representing the state government and sought a reply as to when the Speaker would take action on the plea for disqualification.
During a hearing on January 24, DMK referred to the apex court verdict in the Manipur minister case in which the court said Parliament should "rethink" whether the Speaker of a House should continue to have powers to disqualify lawmakers as such a functionary "belongs to a particular political party".
The Madras High Court in April 2018 dismissed DMK's plea seeking to disqualify the MLAs, citing pendency of a plea in the apex court on the powers of a court to issue directions to an assembly speaker.
The plea seeks disqualification of Panneerselvam and 10 others for having voted against the Palaniswami government when they were in the rebel camp. It contends that by voting against the trust motion, these MLAs violated the whip and hence attracted disqualification under the anti-defection law.