Can Parliamentary privilege protect tainted leaders

Should a lawmaker be granted immunity from criminal prosecution even if he or she takes a bribe to cast his or her vote in favor of or against a party in the legislature?

This question was on Thursday referred to a bigger bench by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, which felt the need for reconsideration of a 1998 judgment in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery case

The two-decade-old decision by a five-judge Constitution Bench had ruled that a lawmaker has protection under the Constitution from facing a criminal case despite accepting money to vote on the floor of the House. Some JMM members of Parliament were claimed to have accepted money to vote against a 1993 no-confidence motion facing the then Congress government headed by PV Narasimha Rao.

The three-judge bench directed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi on Thursday said the issue required reconsideration as it involved an important question of law. Given the fact that the 1998 verdict was delivered by a five-judge bench, the question of law is likely to be sent to a seven-judge-bench.

The reference was made in a case involving Sita Soren, whose father-in-law and JMM leader Shibu Soren was protected by the 1998 constitution bench verdict. According to the ruling, since the MPs who had taken money had voted on the floor of the house, their actions were immune from prosecution.

Sita Soren is facing criminal prosecution for allegedly accepting a bribe and voting in a Rajya Sabha poll in 2012 as a member of the Jharkhand assembly. Her lawyer Vivek Singh argued that charges of corruption against her should be quashed in light of the 1998 ruling.

The state high court has ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the interest. A charge sheet has been filed against her. Sita Soren challenged a trial court’s order taking cognizance of the CBI charge sheet before the HC, which dismissed it on November 11, 2013. She then moved the top court in appeal.

In its 1998 verdict, the top court had, by a majority of 3-2, set all the accused free barring one, Ajit Singh. The court said that the bribe-taking MPs who voted on the no-confidence motion were entitled to protection under Article 105(2) of the Constitution. On Ajit Singh, the court held that he derived no immunity because he did not cast a vote.

While dismissing Sita Soren’s plea for quashing the case against her, the HC equated her with Ajit Singh. She was charged with receiving a bribe from candidate “X” but casting her vote in favor of candidate “Y.”

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