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U.K. Supreme Court rules Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Parliament suspension unlawful

"The effect upon the fundamentals of our democracy was extreme," according to the court's president, Brenda Hale.
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LONDON — Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a historic blow Tuesday after the country's top court ruled it was unlawful for him to suspend Parliament at a time of constitutional crisis over Brexit.

In a day of high drama, 11 justices of the U.K.'s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Johnson's advice to Queen Elizabeth II ahead of the suspension "was unlawful, void and of no effect."

Under the U.K.'s political system, the prime minister goes through the formality of advising the queen ahead of suspending Parliament after every legislative cycle.

However, the court ruled that Johnson's suspension — officially called "prorogation" — was unlawful because it stopped lawmakers from scrutinizing the government's Brexit plans.

"The effect upon the fundamentals of our democracy was extreme," the court's president, Brenda Hale, addressed formally as Lady Hale, told the court Tuesday. "It had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification."

The ruling means Parliament is no longer suspended. John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, told reporters he planned for the legislature to sit again as early as Wednesday morning.

Several lawmakers said they would be heading back to London to take their seats, with at least one, the Conservative Tom Tugendhat, tweeting a photo of himself after Tuesday's ruling in the House of Commons already.

The ruling has also caused opponents of Johnson, who is currently in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly, to ramp up calls for his resignation.

Speaking from New York, the prime minister said that "I strongly disagree and I don't think it's right," but conceded that he would respect the decision. Unmoved by the verdict, he restated his promise to take the U.K. out of the E.U. by the end of next month.

Johnson has been prime minister less than two months and has staked his leadership on a promise to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a deal.

Supporters see this policy as a solution to the Brexit impasse that has gripped the nation since it voted to leave the E.U. in a referendum in 2016.

However, experts say Johnson's approach risks a "no-deal Brexit," which the government's own worst-case-scenario forecasts say could bring economic pain, civil unrest and shortages of food.

Tuesday's court case centers around Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks until Oct. 14. It essentially says that Johnson did this to stop lawmakers from blocking his Brexit plans.

This allegation has been widespread among opponents and independent observers.

But hearing it confirmed in a unanimous judgment by the Supreme Court represents an unprecedented blow to the prime minister's authority, and one which has uncertain consequences for the country's future.

It was the culmination of two cases brought in the English and Scottish courts by activists, lawyers and politicians. The Scottish court found Johnson had acted unlawfully; the English one said it wasn't for judges to decide. Tuesday's ruling at the Supreme Court agreed with the former.

It's the latest norm-busting event to befall Johnson. He has already lost a slew of parliamentary votes during his brief administration, one of which would force him to ask for an extension to the Brexit deadline if necessary.

Among those who supported this bill were a group of rebels from his own Conservative Party, who were effectively fired by Johnson in a move that deprived his own government of its parliamentary majority.

Many political-watchers predict that, with neither government nor opposition in a commanding position, a general election is inevitable at some point.

The prime minister and his team had claimed that suspending Parliament was legitimate and necessary to prepare for a new legislative agenda.

But Hale told the court Tuesday that "no justification for taking action with such an extreme effect has been put before the court" by the government's lawyers.

Because the suspension was unlawful, it was as though the officials who finalized the move in Parliament had "walked in with a blank sheet of paper," she said.

Johnson's lawyers indicated last week that he could seek to suspend Parliament again if the court ruled against him.

Following the decision, Dominic Grieve, one of the lawmakers fired by Johnson from the Conservative Party, told Sky News that, "It's quite clear the prime minister lied to the public about the reasons for the prorogation."

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said that Johnson was guilty of a "contempt for democracy and an abuse of power."

"Boris Johnson isn't fit to be prime minister," tweeted Jo Swinson, the leader of the smaller Liberal Democrats. "He's misled queen and country, and unlawfully silenced the people's representatives."