What are the three cases before the new CJI-led Constitution Bench? | Explained

The Bench will hear cases relating to Assam’s NRC and the Citizenship Act, the continuation of reservations for SC/STs in Lok Sabha and immunity enjoyed by lawmakers against bribery charges

Updated - September 16, 2023 03:14 pm IST

Published - September 16, 2023 03:13 pm IST

File photo: A view of the Supreme Court of India complex in New Delhi on Tuesday, September 5, 2023.

File photo: A view of the Supreme Court of India complex in New Delhi on Tuesday, September 5, 2023. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The story so far: As per a notification released on September 5, the Supreme Court has constituted a new five-judge Constitution Bench to hear three important cases starting September 20. The bench will be headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud and also comprise Justices A.S. Bopanna, M.M. Sundresh, J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

A Constitution Bench is constituted whenever a matter of law arises that requires interpretation of a Constitutional provisions or if there is a significant legal question to be decided. Article 145(3) of the Constitution, which deals with the rules of the Court, provides for the setting up of such Constitution Benches and stipulates that a minimum of five judges need to sit for deciding a case involving a “substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution,” or for hearing any reference under Article 143, which deals with the power of the President to consult the Supreme Court.

The cases listed at present before the Constitution Bench pertain to the constitutional validity of Section 6A of The Citizenship Act, 1955; the extension of reservations in the Lok Sabha and State legislatures for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and the Anglo-Indian community; and whether any legal immunity is enjoyed by MPs and MLAs from prosecution for offences such as offering or accepting bribes for casting votes.

Assam Public Works v. Union of India

This case pertains to a challenge of the constitutional validity of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955, which was inserted in furtherance of the Assam Accord signed between the Indian government and the representatives of the Assam Movement following the Indo-Pakistan War in 1971. Section 6A outlines a framework for recognising migrants in Assam as Indian citizens or expelling them on the basis of the date of their migration.

Section 6A deals with ‘Special provisions as to citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord’ and stipulates that people who came to Assam on or after January 1, 1966, but before March 25, 1971, from the specified territory (all territories of Bangladesh at the time of commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1985) and are resident in Assam since then will be able to register themselves as citizens of India.

In November 2012, the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, a Guwahati-based civil society organisation, filed a petition challenging Section 6A on the ground that it discriminates against other Indian citizens by permitting different cut-off dates for regularising illegal migrants entering Assam and the rest of the country. It also sought the court’s intervention in directing the concerned authority to update the National Register for Citizens (NRC) with respect to the State of Assam by taking into account the details available following the 1951 National Census instead of the electoral rolls prior to March 24, 1971.

Also read: The NRC case: The Supreme Court’s role

In 2013, a Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices R.F. Nariman and Ranjan Gogoi directed the State of Assam to begin updating the NRC in compliance with the Citizenship Act, 1955, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and the Issue of National Identity Card Rules), 2003. Consequently, on July 21, 2015, the Bench referred the case to a five-judge Constitution Bench which was eventually constituted in 2017 and comprised Justices Madan B Lokur, R.K. Agrawal, Prafulla Chandra Pant, D.Y. Chandrachud, and Ashok Bhushan.

Owing to the eventual retirement of all the judges except CJI D.Y. Chandrachud, then CJI U.U. Lalit constituted a bench comprising the Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, M.R. Shah, Krishna Murari, Hima Kohli, and P.S. Narasimha to hear the matter. The new Constitution Bench has been constituted following the retirement of Justices M.R. Shah and Krishna Murari.

Ashok Kumar Jain v. Union of India and Ors

The case pertains to a challenge to the constitutional validity of the Constitution (79th Amendment) Act, 1999, which amended Article 334 of the Constitution. Article 334 grants reservations in the Lok Sabha and State Legislatures to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and the Anglo-Indian community. The provision was initially supposed to operate only for 10 years however subsequent amendments have extended reservations for the SC/ST communities to 80 years and for the Anglo-Indian community to 70 years respectively.

The petition, filed in 2000, contended that the amendment violated the right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution as well as the basic structure of the Constitution. It pointed out that repeated extension of limited reservations violated the democratic rights of those who did not belong to the reserved communities.

On September 2, 2003, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court referred the matter to a five-judge Constitution Bench. In 2009, Article 334 was amended once again through the Constitution (95th Amendment) Act, 2009, and reservations were extended to a period of 70 years for the SC/ST and the Anglo-Indian communities. On January 21, 2002, the Parliament passed the Constitution (104th Amendment) Act, 2019, and once again extended reservations for the SC/ST communities to 80 years. However, reservations for the Anglo-Indian community were discontinued. Last year, the Supreme Court listed the matter for hearing before a five-judge Bench headed by Justice D.Y Chandrachud.

Sita Soren v. Union of India

This case pertains to the question of whether Article 194(2) of the Constitution confers any immunity on parliamentarians from being prosecuted for a criminal offence involving the offering or acceptance of a bribe for casting votes.

Article 194(2) gives immunity to a member of the State Legislature from being prosecuted for any vote cast by them and stipulates ‘No member of the Legislature of a State shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in the Legislature or any committee thereof, and no person shall be so liable in respect of the publication by or under the authority of a House of such a Legislature of any report, paper, votes or proceedings.’

Sita Soren, a member of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), was accused of accepting a bribe to cast her vote in favour of a certain candidate in the Rajya Sabha Elections of 2012. Soon after, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed an official chargesheet against her. In 2014, the Jharkhand High Court dismissed Ms. Soren’s plea seeking quashing of the criminal proceedings initiated against her claiming that she enjoyed legal immunity under Article 194(2). This led to an appeal being filed in the Supreme Court.

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court while hearing the case took note of an earlier Constitution Bench decision in P.V. Narasimha Rao v. State (1998) wherein it was held that parliamentarians enjoy immunity under the Constitution against criminal prosecution with regards to their speech and votes in the House. The Bench accordingly referred the matter to a larger five-judge Bench for consideration and the issue framed for reference was stated as — Whether Article 105/194 (2) of the Constitution of India confers any immunity on the Members of Parliament/Legislative Assembly from being prosecuted for an offence involving offer or acceptance of bribe to caste vote in a legislature?

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