Seven-judge Bench agrees to take a call on giving Money Bill case priority

Kapil Sibal says the passage of crucial amendments to laws like PMLA is a ‘live issue’; Centre objects, says the court should not heed the request for priority made on the basis of ‘political exigencies’

October 12, 2023 03:32 pm | Updated 05:07 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of Supreme Court of India, in New Delhi.

A view of Supreme Court of India, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

A seven-judge Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud on Thursday said it will “take a call” on a request from petitioners to give priority to a reference concerning the manner in which the Centre got crucial amendments passed in the Parliament as Money Bills.

The Centre objected to the request, saying the Bench should not give priority to the case based on a request made by the petitioners, who include Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, on the basis of “political exigencies”.

“It is my request, give it [Money Bill reference] priority. It is a live issue,” senior advocate Kapil Sibal, for the petitioners, urged the Constitution Bench.

But Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said “priority is Your Lordships’ discretion, but we would request the court to hear the cases seniority wise… We can’t decide priority based on political exigencies”.

“Alright, leave it to us… we will take a call,” Chief Justice Chandrachud replied.

The reference includes legal questions concerning amendments made from 2015 onwards in the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) through Money Bills, giving the Enforcement Directorate almost blanket powers of arrest, raids, etc. Though the court had upheld the legality of the PMLA amendments, it left the question whether the amendments could have been passed as Money Bills to the seven-judge Bench.

Similarly, the case also raises questions about passage of the Finance Act of 2017 as a Money Bill to alter the appointments to 19 key judicial tribunals, including the National Green Tribunal and Central Administrative Tribunal. Mr. Ramesh, a petitioner in this case, had argued that the 2017 Act was deliberately categorised as a Money Bill to “extend executive control over these institutions (tribunals) by altering the composition of the selection committees and vastly downgrading the qualifications and experience required to staff these bodies”.

The seven-judge Bench is hearing the Money Bill question based on a reference made in November 2019 by a five-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi in the case of Rojer Mathew vs. South Indian Bank Ltd. The cardinal issue is whether such amendments could be passed as a Money Bill, circumventing the Rajya Sabha, in violation of Article 110 of the Constitution.

A Money Bill is deemed to contain only provisions dealing with all or any of the matters under clauses (a) to (g) of Article 110(1), largely including the appropriation of money from the Consolidated Fund of India and taxation. In other words, a Money Bill is restricted only to the specified financial matters.

The Money Bill reference is numbered five in the list of cases scheduled before the seven judges. The Bench had convened on October 12 to iron out the pre-hearing formalities before the cases were to be heard.

The question of passage of laws after dressing them up as Money Bills had come up in the Aadhaar case too. However, the top court had, in a majority verdict in 2021, refused to review its 2018 judgment (K. Puttaswamy case) upholding the validity of the Aadhaar Act and its certification as a Money Bill. Justice Chandrachud, who is heading the current Bench, had delivered the dissenting opinion on the Review Bench in 2021.

The two questions before the Review Bench had been whether the Lok Sabha Speaker’s decision to declare the proposed Aadhaar law as Money Bill was “final”. The second, whether the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 was correctly certified as a ‘Money Bill’ under Article 110(1) of the Constitution.

Justice Chandrachud, in his dissent, had said the Review Bench ought to wait till the seven-judge Bench decided the larger questions on Money Bill in the Rojer Mathew reference. The majority, led by Justice (retired) A.M. Khanwilkar, had disagreed with him.

“Finally, the Supreme Court has set up a seven-judge bench, headed by the CJI himself, to hear my petitions challenging the unconstitutional manner in which the Modi government has passed key Bills by getting them declared as Money Bills. I have repeatedly raised this issue in the Parliament and outside it through 3 petitions in the Supreme Court — first one filed on April 6th, 2016 — as it denies the Rajya Sabha the opportunity to discuss or pass amendments to key legislations. Examples include the Aadhaar Bill, the Bill diluting the powers of Tribunals including the National Green Tribunal, and the Bill to make the Prevention of Money Laundering Act more draconian.

Hopefully, the final verdict will be forthcoming soon as it will have far-reaching implications on the very functioning of Parliament,” Mr. Ramesh posted on social media platform X (formerly Twitter).

One of the references lined up before the seven-judges Bench led by Chief Justice Chandrachud concerns the question whether fundamental rights are subservient to parliamentary privileges. This case was triggered by a petition filed by senior journalist of The Hindu, N Ravi, in 2003, challenging an order of arrest passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker against journalists on charges of breach of privilege and gross contempt.

Another case is about the power of the Assembly Speaker to hear disqualification proceedings under the Tenth Schedule (anti-defection law) when there is a pending notice for his removal from office.

Yet another among the references is regarding the Aligarh Muslim University’s status as a minority institution.

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