U.K. Top Court Blocks Parts of Scottish Brexit Legislation

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The U.K.’s top judges ruled that a rival Brexit bill passed by the Scottish government isn’t constitutional in its current form.

But the Supreme Court presented a mixed picture in its decision Thursday. A panel of seven judges said large parts of the Scottish bill, which protects devolved powers after the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, are within the "legislative competence" of the parliament in Scotland.

When the U.K. pushed through its flagship Brexit legislation, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called it a "naked power grab." Hard-fought local powers would be transferred back to London when EU law was converted into British law, she said. Her rival Brexit bill sought to ensure the Scottish parliament would keep control over important policy areas.

Handed down just yards from the Palace of Westminster, Thursday’s Supreme Court judgment was enough to allow the U.K. government to claim victory, a relief for Prime Minister Theresa May, who scraped through a confidence vote from her party’s lawmakers a day earlier on her Brexit plans.

"The Supreme Court has provided much-needed legal clarity that the Continuity Bill goes beyond the powers of the Scottish parliament," Scottish minister David Mundell said in a statement.

Michael Russell, who oversees the Scottish government’s relations with London, said the U.K. government unilaterally cut its powers, making parts of the bill outside its remit.

"The U.K. government changed the rules of the game midway through the match," Russell said in a statement. "This is an act of constitutional vandalism."

In the 2016 referendum, Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the EU. Overruling Holyrood, as the Edinburgh assembly is known, would be politically sensitive -- particularly over such a historic move as Brexit. It also risks playing into the hands of the nationalists who are trying to build a case for another independence referendum.

In its current form, Sturgeon’s rival bill would allow for Scotland’s laws to keep pace with EU rules going forward. The U.K. government said the Withdrawal Bill already covers the whole country and that devolved powers will then be passed back to Scotland. Local officials in the parliament also had their own doubts about the legality of the Scottish measures.

The U.K. objected to the separate Scottish legislation on the basis it "is legally untidy, politically inconvenient or redundant in the light of corresponding U.K. legislation," the judges said. "But we are not concerned with supposed objections of this kind."

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