70-plus US law professors warn against ‘speed and scale’ of planned legal overhaul

Scholars say weakening judiciary’s independence would pose ‘dire risk’ to freedom of expression, human and civil rights and efforts to reduce corruption

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Over 70 prominent law professors at American universities on Monday signed onto a statement urging the Israeli government to rethink its plan to significantly restrict the power of the country’s judiciary.

“Regardless of the disagreement amongst us, we are all deeply worried that the speed and scale of the reforms will seriously weaken the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers and the rule of law,” reads the statement.

The proposals presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin earlier this month would severely limit the High Court’s capacity to annul laws and government decisions with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

In their joint statement, the legal scholars — who opened by saying they “care deeply about Israel” — warned that weakening the country’s democratic safeguards “would pose a dire risk to freedom of expression, to human and civil rights, and to efforts to reduce corruption, making it harder for Israel to survive such challenges going forward. We hope for Israel’s sake that it chooses a wiser path.”

The 78 signatories included former deans at the Harvard and Yale law schools, Martha Minow and Robert Post along with Alan Dershowitz — a staunch Israel supporter who has already spoken out against the new government’s legal proposals.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts as well as weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.

Attorney Alan Dershowitz talks to the press outside federal court in New York, on December 2, 2019. (AP Photo/ Richard Drew/File)

Fifty former Israeli ministry directors signed onto a Monday letter warning that the proposals “will cause unprecedented damage to Israel’s economy.”

Earlier this month, 17 of Israel’s leading law firms warned that the controversial sweeping reforms would not fix the system and instead will harm the country’s reputation and economy. The following week, two former Bank of Israel governors, Karnit Flug and Jacob Frenkel, joined warnings that the plan could negatively affect Israel’s credit rating. And last week, Israeli bank chiefs warned Netanyahu of the potential economic fallout of his government’s proposals.

More recently, 310 economists, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin of the United States and Israel Prize recipient Menahem Yaari, signed a letter against the proposed overhaul, warning that the overhaul could “lead investors to flee and bring a brain drain.”

While Netanyahu said he was open to dialogue, he has insisted that he will not slow efforts to advance the judicial overhaul.

The premier, whose far-right and religious government was sworn in last month, has pushed back against the mounting criticism, claiming that judicial oversight was actually hampering economic growth and urging professionals and some politicians to stop “bringing down a tsunami of lies about the collapse of the economy.”

Addressing reporters last week, Netanyahu, who is technically blocked from weighing in on legislation that could affect the outcome of his ongoing corruption trial, said: “When judicial reform passes, I am convinced that everyone will see that rule of law remains intact, and is even strengthened, that democracy remains intact, and is even strengthened, and that our free economy is even strengthened, and strengthened a lot.”

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