By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Supreme Court said on Thursday parliament does not have the legal authority to investigate accusations of misconduct against senior judges and an impeachment proceeding against the chief justice was against the law.
The government and Supreme Court have been at loggerheads since President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling party filed an impeachment motion against Shirani Bandaranayake, Sri Lanka's first female head of the Supreme Court, on November 6.
The government complained that she had been overstepping her authority but Bandaranayake's supporters complained of political interference in the judiciary. The case has raised international concern about the independence of the judiciary.
A parliamentary impeachment committee last month found Bandaranayake guilty on counts of financial irregularities, conflict of interest and failure to declare her assets.
But the Supreme Court said investigations into any misbehavior by senior judges including the chief justice should be conducted by a judicial body.
"Therefore, in our opinion, it is mandatory for parliament to provide by law the body competent to conduct the investigation," the court said in a 27-page ruling, which was read out in a lower court.
Government Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwelle declined to comment on the ruling saying the speaker of parliament would decide on the latest move by the judiciary.
Parliament had scheduled to debate the impeachment on Bandaranayake next week, before a vote which the government, with a majority in the assembly, would be bound to win.
The Supreme Court's ruling backs up a decision by an appeal court's which last month blocked parliament from voting to impeach Bandaranayake, the country's first woman chief justice.
The United States, the United Nations and the Commonwealth have raised concerns about the impeachment and called on Rajapaksa to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
The parliamentary panel which found Bandaranayake guilty was appointed by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, the elder brother of the president.
The accusations against Bandaranayake arose after she ruled against a bill, submitted by the president's younger brother, Basil Rajapaksa, proposing an 80-billion rupee ($614 million) development budget which she said had to be approved by nine provincial councils.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Robert Birsel)