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Governor Not Open To Withhold Assent To Bills, Says SC Stressing Gubernatorial Powers In Punjab

The Supreme Court ruled on Friday, setting down a major precedent that clarifies the boundaries of the governor’s authority, that a governor cannot refuse to sign legislation just because they question the legitimacy of the session in which it was approved.

Declaring as such, the Court declared that the four measures that have been filed for the approval of Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit must now be decided upon. The Punjab Governor refrained from signing the bills because he did not believe the Punjab Vidhan Sabha’s June session was legitimate.

The bench, which included Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, ruled unequivocally that the Punjab Assembly’s June Session was legitimate. The panel ruled that the Speaker has the authority to adjourn the March 2023 budget session rather than proroguing it and holding another one in June.

The Punjab Government filed a writ suit against the Governor’s inaction on four measures, including money bills. The bench noted in the judgement that:

“Any attempt to cast doubt on the session of the legislature would be fraught with great perils to democracy. The Speaker, who has been recognised to be the guardian of the privileges of house,was acting in his jurisdiction in adjourning the house sine die.

Casting doubt on the validity of the session of the house is not a constitutional option open to the governor. The legislative assembly comprises of duly elected members of legislature”.

“We are of the view that the governor of Punjab must now proceed to take decision on bills submitted for assent on the basis that the sitting of the house conducted on 19-20 June 2023 was constitutionally valid”, the bench stated.

“It must be noted that in a Parliamentary form of democracy, real power rests with the elected representatives of the people….. The Governor, as an appointee of the President, is the titular head of the State”, the Court observed in the judgment.

The bench further noted that the Speaker’s ability to adjourn the meeting cannot be abused to put the house in a perpetual state of suspended animation. Three house sessions must occur each year, and one session may not be continued indefinitely.

The bench also recorded the assurance made by Senior Advocate Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi on behalf of the State that the Chief Minister would be advising the speaker to convene the winter session of the state legislative assembly at an early date.

During the hearing, the Chief Justice of India went to extent of saying that the Governor was “playing with fire” by withholding assent on four bills on this ground.

“How can you say that bill which has been passed cannot be assented to because session is invalid? You realise the gravity of what you’re doing?You’re playing with fire. How can the governor say this…these are bills passed by elected members…Will we continue to be a parliamentary democracy? This is a very serious matter”, CJI DY Chandrachud orally said

CJI DY Chandrachud also questioned the implications of giving such power to the Governor, stating, “if we give such power to the Governor, will we continue to be a parliamentary democracy?”

At the outset, the counsel appearing for the Secretary to the Governor of State of Punjab asserted that the Governor had only kept four bills pending and the same was done as there existed a dispute regarding the validity of the sessions in which the said bills were passed. He argued that the State Legislature was bound to have three sessions– Budget Session, Monsoon Session, and the Winter Session. However, he stated, the State Legislature kept on extending the Budget Session, which was supposed to end in March, and held Sessions in June and October. Thus, the Budget session was not prorogued, and was simply adjourned. Instead of calling a fresh monsoon session, the budget session was reconvened in June. This obviated the need to wait for the Governor to summon a session, which is necessary for a fresh session. In this context, it may be noted that the Governor summoned the budget session in March, only after the State Government approached the Supreme Court.

The four bills were passed in the Session held in June. Expressing doubts about the validity of the session, the Governor reserved assent on the bills, saying that he required to take legal opinion of the Attorney General.

Upon this submission, the CJI expressed his dissatisfaction with the action of the State Government of Punjab, stating–

“We understand that it may be necessary to adjourn the house sine die between budget session. But your budget session is now going into monsoon, the monsoon goes into winter…If democracy has to work, it has to work in hand of CM and in the hand of the Governor as well. You cannot ignore the rules of the house that there have to be three sessions.”

The CJI added that while the Governor’s actions of withholding assent could not be accepted, the State Government was in wrong too. He said–

“What your government is doing in Punjab is also defeating the constitution. We are not happy with the governor as well. But you are required to have three sessions.”

At this juncture, Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing the State Government on Punjab, argued that the Governor was trying to paint a picture that the budget session held in October was meant to substitute the winter session. He stated that the same was not the case and added–

“I’m still going to have a winter session too. We’re not substituting this with winter session.”

He further argued that the decision of the Speaker in calling for the session cannot be challenged.

“In June what made the governor not giving assent to four bills? Winter session is yet to happen in November…There are assemblies in this country which just meet for 15 days…If I was to non-prorogue a budget session and have in winter session, it wouldn’t be right. But winter session hasn’t happened yet.”

The CJI then moved his attention to the action of the Governor and stated that the speaker was within his rights in adjourning the session sine die and calling it again as the budget session had not ended.

The CJI then questioned where the power of the Governor to state that the session called by the Speaker was being called invalidly could be located. At this juncture, Singhvi provided the bench with judgements to establish that the Speaker had the power to adjourn the house sine die.

The counsel for Governor’s Secretary requested for a week’s time to place additional documents on record and stated that if the session was valid, the Governor had no issues in assenting to the bills. To this, Singhvi submitted–

“Governor is not a decider or prorogation or adjournment. What will he file? He has no rule. See the rules of the assembly. The governor has no locus. The adjournment sine die has to be done with consultation with speaker.”

At this juncture, Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta made a crucial intervention and said :

“Let us have a solution under the Constitution. Give me a week. I am appearing for the Union of India. I have instructions to say this needs a solution, not contention. We will find a solution, your lordships can rest assured.”

When the bench reconvened after the lunch break, the counsel appearing on behalf of the Governor said that he has conveyed the oral remarks of the Court to the Governor and requested the bench to take up the matter on November 20.

The bench however proceeded to dictate the judgment, in which it made a specific reference to the Article 200 of the Constitution which mandated the Governor to return the bill “as soon as possible”.

The bench noted that as per Article 200, the Governor may either assent to the bill, return the bill for reconsideration by the house or reserve the bill for President’s assent. In the case of a money bill, the Governor has no option of returning the bill.

In any case, there is no option available to the Governor to question the validity of the session.

Article 174 gives the power to the Governor to summon the session of the house. However, Article 171 makes a distinction between sitting of legislature and session of legislature.

“This recognises that there may be more than one sitting of legislature comprised in one and the same session”, the bench observed.

When the matter came for admission last Monday (November 6), the Court had expressed displeasure at the trend of Governors acting on bills only after the State Government approached the Court.

The Court is also seized of similar petitions filed by the States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu against their respective Governors.

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