(In this guest post, Jeydev c.s. examines the controversial – and ongoing – issue of whether the Speaker’s decision to classify a bill as a money bill is subject to judicial review.)
Money bills seem to be all the rage these days. What is generally relegated to the annals of arcane legislative procedure is now at the forefront of a public debate that has raised accusations of executive arrogance, been defended as efficient law-making, and for our purposes, is begging questions of constitutional propriety. In this post, I look at the specific legal question of whether the role and conduct of the Speaker in classifying bills as ‘money bills’ is open to judicial review; this very issue is presently before the Supreme Court of India in Jairam Ramesh v. Union of India, as it hears a petition by a former cabinet minister who has challenged the passing of the Aadhaar Act, 2016 as a money bill, among other things. The question is important, because under the Constitution, the Rajya Sabha cannot exercise its customary legislative veto upon money bills. Consequently, the Speaker’s decision to classify a bill as a money bill or not has important ramifications.
It is true that in two recent cases, Mohd. Saeed Siddiqui v. State of Uttar Pradesh and Yogendra Kumar Jaiswal v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court has held that the Speaker’s decision is not subject to judicial review. However, this post seeks to locate these judgments within the broader jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, with which they appear at odds with. The present petition offers the Court a rare opportunity to unambiguously articulate its position with sufficient reasoning, while acknowledging consequential implications, whichever way it rules.
Article 110 of the Constitution defines a money bill, and sets out six specific subjects which a money bill might cover (imposition of taxation, regulation of government borrowing etc.), so as to merit such classification, as well as any matter that is “incidental” to those six subjects. This is an exclusive list. Clause (3) provides that whenever any question arises to the propriety of classification under article 110, the decision of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha shall be final. However, the question remains: does the finality of the Speaker’s decision necessarily oust the jurisdiction of the courts? Article 122 explicitly bars courts from inquiring into the proceedings of Parliament. As the text of clause (1) suggests, this bar applies to any question on the ground of “irregularity of procedure”. The Supreme Court has, on several occasions, opined on the contours of this restriction.
In M.S.M Sharma v. Dr. Shree Krishna Sinha, it was affirmed that legislative business cannot be invalidated even if they are not in strict compliance with the law. As Chief Justice Sinha observed, these issues fall within the realm of what is a ‘special jurisdiction’ of the legislature – to regulate its own business; and the general rule is one of non-intervention. Historically at common law, this was also a privilege extended to Parliament and its officers, such as the Speaker. The powers of expulsion, censure, contempt et cetera are freely exercised by the UK Parliament without the threat of judicial review. However, the guiding principle of Indian law is constitutional supremacy, not parliamentary supremacy. For this reason, Indian jurisprudence has not been as kind to power unchecked by other branches of government. It has been repeatedly clarified in cases such as State of Rajasthan v. Union of India that the Constitution is ‘supreme lex’, which limits the authority of each branch, including that of the legislature. Judicial review offers an invaluable tool in checking Parliamentary belligerence, and this role is integral to the Indian constitutional scheme, as clarified by the Court in Sub-Committee on Judicial Accountability v. Union of India. From these cases, what is clear is this – the affairs of a legislature are generally the domain of that legislature alone, while the judiciary could play a significant role in review if the former strays from its constitutional circumscriptions.
For more guidance on what that potential role could be, we may look to Keshav Singh’s case. It held that while legislative bodies are not subject to judicial control as far as their internal procedures are concerned, there are certain caveats to such a proposition. It was held that a court of law may question legislative procedure if the impugned action rests not on mere irregularity, but from an ‘illegality’ or ‘unconstitutionality’ of procedure. In Ramdas Athavale v. Union of India, the Supreme Court extended that standard to article 122, as it pertains to procedural actions of Parliament. More tellingly, in Raja Ram Pal v. Speaker, Lok Sabha, the Court had applied this standard to article 105 (3), which sought to import those privileges, powers, and immunities enjoyed by the House of Commons into the Indian scheme (as an interim measure, until the Indian Parliament itself legislates on those matters). This case dealt with the expulsion of certain members of Parliament, by the Speaker. A plain reading of this clause and Parliamentary practices in the House of Commons might suggest a finality to procedural decision of the Speaker in confirming the expulsion, in terms that are analogous to article 110. The Court however noted that the Indian Constitution did not provide for expulsion as a means to effect a vacancy in the house, and the procedure was therefore illegal and unconstitutional, rather than merely irregular. The Speaker’s decision was held to be open to judicial scrutiny, and the expelled members were reinstated by the Court.
Given this precedential matrix, the question now turns to whether the decision of the Speaker to classify a bill as a money bill under article 110 amounts to a procedural matter; and even if it does, whether patently erroneous classification would amount only to mere irregularity of procedure. In Siddiqui, the Court considered a controversy with regard to identical provisions of the Constitution pertaining to state legislative assemblies. Here, the Court validated the finality of the decision of the Speaker, with only a passing reference to the rule clarified in the wealth of cases before it, and dismissed them without any substantial scrutiny. It did not offer any reasoning for this conclusion – in fact, it refrained from attempting to make the crucial link between irregularity of procedure and judicial review. The Court merely reiterated the text of article 110 (3), despite the broader avenue of intervention that has existed as far back as Keshav Singh.
More recently in Jaiswal, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the holding in Siddiqui that any decision of the Speaker in this regard, however flawed, could only amount to a “mere irregularity”, and thus outside the ambit of judicial review. Despite seemingly settling the question once and for all, closer scrutiny shows that the only source relied upon to this end is the conclusion in Siddiqui itself. It does not offer any independent assessment of the issue or unique reasoning – to say, ‘because Siddiqui said so’, holds value only if Siddiqui had done so on solid legal grounding in the first place. To that end, the Court missed an opportunity to detail the reasoning that informed its conclusions, particularly in light of the remarkable consequences of its decision. As anecdotal evidence from oral proceedings in the Ramesh case seems to suggest, the Court does not appear to be inclined to let blatant mischaracterisation go unchecked; Khehar CJ is reported to have observed, “If the Speaker says blue is green, we will tell her that blue is blue and not green”.
The Rajya Sabha is the indirectly-elected, upper-house of the bicameral Parliament of India. As such, it was envisaged to be an active participant in the legislative process – among other things, it would be consultative, advisory, and contributory towards law-making, without being subject to the vagaries of electoral politics. These features are supposed to, in theory, improve the quality of laws that are enacted by acting as a check on the untrammelled legislative intentions of the directly-elected, lower house of Parliament. With respect to ordinary legislation (i.e. non-money bills), the Rajya Sabha finds itself on equal footing with the Lok Sabha, as the former’s views cannot be ignored by the latter since the passing of such a bill by both houses of Parliament is the sine qua non of becoming law. On the other hand, once classified as a money bill, the Rajya Sabha’s legislative role is severely inhibited by reducing it to an advisory position – advice that is not binding on the Lok Sabha.
If the Court is to yet again affirm the conclusions of Siddiqui and Jaiswal in the forthcoming Ramesh case, unthinking reliance on those two cases would be another opportunity wasted as it does not truly answer the question of whether an erroneous certification of money-bills, as such, merely amounts to procedural irregularity. The Court must offer clear reasons as to why patently improper decisions by the Speaker does not amount to any of the other substantive flaws laid down in Keshav Singh and Pal. The obligation on the Court is to show why our constitutional scheme envisages the vesting of so grave a power with the Speaker that may be abused or incorrectly applied, yet not meriting judicial review. The very distinction between money bills and ordinary bills, as envisaged by the incorporation of article 110 in the Constitution, harks to the expectations of a participative and involved upper house. What does it mean for our democratic institutions if this process is obviously abused to exclude the participation of the upper house?
The Court may very well hold that the text of article 110 (3) is unencumbered by other constitutional standards and that the Speaker’s conduct is beyond review. But doing so entails a significant overhaul of our expectations and the Court must have the conviction to account for the implications of such a finding. It should acknowledge that such a reiteration of Siddiqui and Jaiswal emasculates the Rajya Sabha’s legislative function, implies that the ordinary-money bill distinction is specious despite the text of the Constitution, and that the Lok Sabha is paramount in the legislative process – the Court must justify why such radical empowerment of one house alone in a bicameral Parliament is appropriate.
In the absence of such an explicit and forceful finding, the guiding principle should remain those broader grounds for review envisaged in Keshav Singh, Pal et cetera, rather than the assertions of Siddiqui and Jaiswal. The Supreme Court may very well follow Siddiqui and Jaiswal, but it should also take care to detail the contours of such a deviation from the collective wisdom of its earlier jurisprudence on judicial review of legislative procedure – and contend that the Rajya Sabha is thus relegated to legislative redundancy. Bereft of such reasoning, the article 122 standard and the consequential extension of judicial review to the Speaker’s decision under article 110 appears more constitutionally sound.