SC to pronounce judgment in JMM bribery case review

The cardinal question is whether legislators who take bribes outside the House are immune from prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act

Updated - March 04, 2024 10:26 am IST

Published - March 04, 2024 09:21 am IST - NEW DELHI

A view of the Supreme Court of India.

A view of the Supreme Court of India. | Photo Credit: ANI

A seven-judge Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud is scheduled on March 4 to pronounce judgment on the question whether MPs or MLAs are immune from prosecution for corruption for receiving bribes to cast their votes or make speeches in the House in a particular manner.

The reference to the seven-judges Bench stemmed from a 1998 majority judgment of the Supreme Court in the JMM Bribery case in which errant legislators were spared criminal prosecution for receiving bribes outside the Parliament to vote for a particular candidate in the Rajya Sabha elections of 2012.

Reserving judgment in October last year, the seven-judge Bench orally observed that legislators cannot escape from the law by claiming immunity of office or privilege under Articles 105(2) or 194(2) of the Constitution merely because the incident of bribery was completed outside the House.

The court had made it clear orally that the place - whether inside or outside the House - where an MP or MLA completed the crime of bribery really made no difference to prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

The government’s stand in the case had supported the minority view of Justice (retired) S.C. Agarwal on the five-judge Bench which delivered judgment in 1998.

In 1998, Justice Agarwal had clearly held that the protective cloak of immunity around an MP or MLA would not extend to bribes received outside the House.

Also read | SC to re-examine JMM bribery case verdict of 1998

The seven-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Chandrachud had reviewed the ambit of Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution.

Both constitutional provisions protect lawmakers from criminal or civil proceedings in any court “in respect of” anything said or any vote given by him or her in Parliament/State Legislative Assemblies.

The majority verdict in the JMM Bribery case had held that bribe-takers were immune from prosecution provided they go ahead and cast their vote or give the speech, which was a parliamentary function.

But Chief Justice Chandrachud had observed in October, during the hearings, that the majority view had turned the anti-corruption law on its head.

“The majority (in the 1998 judgment) said legislators would have immunity irrespective of the criminality attached to the taking of a bribe… the only exception they make is for a person who does not fulfill his part of the bargain. If a person [MP/MLA] accepts a bribe and votes, then there is immunity. If a person accepts the bribe and does not fulfill the bargain by abstaining from the vote or does not give the speech, he or she is liable to be punished,” Chief Justice Chandrachud had pointed out.

The Chief Justice had observed that the purpose of the immunity was not to “set apart” MPs/MLAs from ordinary citizens as far as the application of the criminal law was concerned.

The reference came in an appeal filed by JMM leader Sita Soren, who was accused of taking a bribe to vote for a particular candidate in the Rajya Sabha elections of 2012. Though she later denied culpability on the ground that she voted for the official nominee of her own party, the CBI had filed a chargesheet in the case. The Jharkhand High Court had refused to quash the chargesheet, following which she had moved the apex court.

Sita Soren is the daughter-in-law of JMM chief and former union minister Shibu Soren, who was involved in the alleged JMM bribery case.

In 1993, four JMM MLAs and eight other MPs were allegedly bribed to ensure the survival of the then P.V. Narasimha Rao government during a no-confidence vote. They voted accordingly, and when the scandal broke, claimed immunity from criminal prosecution because their act of voting had happened inside Parliament.

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