Sri Lanka: Speaker's Ruling Has No Bearing
December 2, 2012
A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
Sri Lanka: Speaker's Ruling Has No Bearing Upon The Substantive Issues In The Impeachment
The Speaker's ruling relating to the Supreme Court's notice to the Speaker and the members of the Parliamentary Select Committee does not in any way prohibits the constitutional right of the Court to entertain and to determine the Reference made by the Court of Appeal for a specific question relating to the scope of Article 107 (3) of the Constitution. Since the issue mooted is of utmost importance, various aspects relating to it should be reflected upon on the basis of constitutional principles and logic.
Based on this the following issues could be highlighted:
The basic structure of Sri Lanka's constitution as a democracy - It is beyond question that Sri Lanka's constitution is that of a republic and a democracy. In this there is no fundamental difference between the Indian constitution and the Sri Lankan constitution. The Supreme Court of India finally laid the issue to rest through a historic judgment, Keshavananda Bharati vs. Union of India and others. In going into the questions referred by the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, the issue of the basic structure of the Constitution of Sri Lanka is an unavoidable issue. All the maters arising out of the Speaker's ruling should be considered relative to the basic issue of Sri Lanka as a democracy. The Speaker's powers need to be looked at within the constitutional architecture that defines Sri Lanka as a democracy.
Any reference to the ultimate supremacy of the parliament should only be understood with reference to the overall consideration of Sri Lanka as a democracy. Such phrases as "supremacy of the parliament" should not be given any meaning that will be detrimental to Sri Lanka's constitutional structure as a democracy.
The Speaker's ruling cannot limit the power of the Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of any matter - It is a settled principle that the primary opinion on the question of constitutionality of any issue is with the judiciary. To hold otherwise would be to deviate from the basis that Sri Lanka is a democracy.
Even a decision of the parliament arrived through a vote in the parliament is subject to judicial review - There is no limitation for the Supreme Court's authority for judicial review concerning any decision of the parliament or that of a Select Committee constituted by the parliament. The Court has also the power to review the material on which the decision of the parliament or that of the Select Committee is arrived at. The Indian Supreme Court in the S. R. Bommai case has dealt with this matter in great clarity.
The cornerstone of the objection concerning the impeachment process is that a Parliamentary Select Committee cannot exercise judicial power and that such a Committee cannot be considered an impartial and a competent tribunal to decide on the matters relating to the charges against the Chief Justice. This being so from the beginning the functions of the Select Committee in this regard would have no impact on law and could not this lead to any valid decision relating to the impeachment. Therefore the Court has the jurisdiction to declare the legality and the constitutionality of such a process and to declare it void.
The Court has the power to examine the material on which the decision is made - the decision of the Select Committee that is acting as a tribunal cannot lead to a valid decision, and therefore even if the parliament is to vote in favour of an impeachment on the basis of such finding the court has the power to declare such a decision as one that violates the constitution.
The actions of a Select Committee or the Parliament are actions of the government and therefore the court alone has the jurisdiction to review the constitutionality of any such action by a government - The decision relating to the impeachment and the process thereto are not different to any other action by the government. These cannot be claimed as exceptions to the rule that the court has the power to examine the constitutionality of any action of the government.
On the basis of the above considerations the ruling of the Speaker is of no practical importance to the substantive issues relating to the impeachment - Since no substantive issue rests on the Speaker's ruling there is no reason to give any serious consideration to this ruling as a substantive obstacle to the Court entertaining its jurisdiction in the matter.
The Speaker's ruling may indicate that the government may not abide the decision by the Court in this instance - This possibility exists relating to all decisions that a court make on the constitutionality of any law or other acts of the parliament or that of the executive. A government could ignore the court, and if does so, it openly violates the constitutional architecture and the law. On no instance should a court desist from making decisions on matters referred to it on the basis that the government may disrespect its ruling. If a court were to take such a view, it would be in no position to decide any matter at all. If the government decides to take a confrontational approach to the Supreme Court, that is a matter left to the government, and upon such an event the outcome should be left to the people to decide what course they should take.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
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