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UK Supreme Court hears Parliament suspension case

LONDON (AP) — A lawyer urged Britain’s Supreme Court on Tuesday to rule that Prime Minister Boris Johnson illegally suspended Parliament just weeks before the country is due to leave the European Union for the “improper purpose” of dodging scrutiny of his Brexit plans.

The country’s highest court is sitting to resolve a case that pits the powers of elected lawmakers against those of the executive in a struggle to control the course of Brexit.

Johnson sent lawmakers home on Sept. 9 until Oct. 14, which is barely two weeks before the scheduled Oct. 31 Brexit day.

The prime minister says Britain must leave the EU at the end of next month, with or without a divorce deal. But many lawmakers believe a no-deal Brexit would be economically devastating and socially destabilizing, and are determined to thwart him.

Lawyer David Pannick, who represents one of the campaigners challenging the government, told 11 Supreme Court judges that Johnson had improperly suspended the legislature “to silence Parliament … because he sees Parliament as an obstacle to the furtherance of his political aims.”

The court will hear from government lawyers later in the day.

Johnson says the suspension is routine, and will allow his government to launch its domestic agenda with a new session of Parliament. But the decision outraged many lawmakers, who say it’s designed to prevent them from challenging Johnson’s push for Brexit in October “do or die.”

The suspension sparked legal challenges, to which lower courts have given contradictory rulings. England’s High Court said the suspension was a political rather than legal matter, but Scottish court judges ruled last week that Johnson acted illegally “to avoid democratic scrutiny.”

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide who was right, in a case scheduled to last up to three days. It is considering two questions: Is this a matter for the courts; and, if so, did the government break the law?

Pannick, attorney for transparency campaigner Gina Miller, told court it was a fundamental constitutional principle that “Parliament is sovereign and the executive is accountable to Parliament.”

He said the five-week suspension of Parliament was the longest for decades, and called it “remarkable” that the prime minister had not submitted a witness statement to the court outlining his reasons.

He said that in the absence of a sworn statement, “we say the court should infer that there is no answer” to the allegation that Johnson acted improperly.

The government’s critics have accused Johnson of misleading Queen Elizabeth II, whose formal approval was needed to suspend Parliament.

Pannick stressed that he wasn’t criticizing the 93-year-old monarch.

“Her majesty acted on the advice of her prime minister,” he said.

The government denies misconduct. Its lawyers argued in a written submission that the issue is “intrinsically one of high policy and politics, not law.”

“There are no judicial or manageable standards by reference to which the courts could assess the lawfulness of ministerial decisions,” they argue.

There will be submissions later from the governments of Scotland and Wales and former Prime Minister John Major — all supporting the challenges to the government — and from a Northern Ireland campaigner who argues a no-deal Brexit would endanger the peace process there.

Johnson hasn’t said what he will do if the judges rule the suspension illegal. He told the BBC he would “wait and see what they say.”

The case is the latest twist in a Brexit saga that has divided British politicians and the public for more than three years, since the country narrowly voted in 2016 to leave the EU.

Protesters with signs reading “reopen Parliament” and “defend our democracy” stood silently outside the courthouse across from the Houses of Parliament before the case opened, alongside a performer painted green and wearing a blond wig who called himself “The Incredible Sulk.”

People protest outside the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to prorogue parliament, in London, Britain on September 17, 2019.  Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters

People protest outside the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament, in London, Britain on September 17, 2019. Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters

Johnson told a newspaper over the weekend that the U.K. would break free of the EU “like the Hulk.”

The brash prime minister insists Britain must leave the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a divorce agreement, though he says he believes he can strike a deal with the bloc in time for an orderly departure.

But the EU says Britain has yet to offer any “legally operational” solutions to the problem of keeping goods and people flowing freely across the Irish border, the main roadblock to a deal.

The leader of the European Parliament’s biggest party group said Tuesday that “no progress” was being made in Brexit talks.

Manfred Weber, who heads the center-right European People’s Party bloc, said in Strasbourg that “there is no proposal from the British side on the table.”

Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.

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