Chennai: The fate of 18 MLAs of the Tamil Nadu assembly remained unresolved on Thursday, with a two-judge bench of the Madras high court delivering a split verdict over their challenge to their disqualification by speaker P. Dhanapal.

The case will now be heard by a third judge.

“The writ petitions be referred to the next senior-most judge available for nomination of a third judge," the high court ruled after chief justice Indira Banerjee upheld the speaker’s decision and justice M. Sundar differed.

The move comes as huge relief for chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and his deputy O. Panneerselvam, as they will not have to either take a floor test or face elections to the 18 assembly seats as long as the status quo holds.

Ruling on the plea of the disqualified legislators, Banerjee said the view taken by the speaker is “a possible, if not plausible view, and I am unable to hold that the said decision is in any way unreasonable, irrational or perverse. It is well settled that when two views are possible, the high court does not in exercise of its power of judicial review conferred under Article 226 of the Constitution of India interfere with the decision just because it prefers the other view. No interference is, therefore, warranted with the impugned order passed by the speaker."

However, Sundar said the arguments heard in the court have led him to “inevitably conclude that the impugned order of the speaker disqualifying the 18 writ petitioners herein deserves to be set aside".

He cited grounds of “perversity, non-compliance with principles of natural justice, mala fides and violation of constitutional mandate".

Nineteen MLAs loyal to sidelined leader T.T.V. Dhinakaran met then governor Vidyasagar Rao on 22 August 2017 and withdrew support to the Palaniswami government. This prompted government whip S. Rajendran to call for them to be disqualified. Within a few weeks, S.T.K. Jakkaiyan, one of the 19 switched loyalties back to the chief minister’s camp.

In September, the remaining 18 MLAs were disqualified by the speaker under the anti-defection law.