At Shamgar farewell, PM says amending role of Supreme Court is part of democracy
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At Shamgar farewell, PM says amending role of Supreme Court is part of democracy

Netanyahu stresses that top court, whose powers he’s sought to curb, must stay independent; president, current chief justice also eulogize revered justice

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the funeral service for former president of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the funeral service for former president of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said adjusting the role of the Supreme Court is an inherent part of democracy and not a problem as long as the court maintains its independence.

Netanyahu made the remarks at a ceremony in Jerusalem as top government and state dignitaries paid their final respects to retired Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar, who died over the weekend at 94.

Shamgar’s coffin lay in state at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, a building whose construction he championed. Among those paying their respects were Supreme Court Chief Justice Ester Hayut, President Reuven Rivlin, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu, who has sought to curb the power of the court through legislation, including a proposed bill to override its rulings, spoke of tensions that exist between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of democracy.

People pay their last respects to late former president of the Israeli Supreme Court Meir Shamgar during his funeral service at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“There is built-in tension between them. That tension is not a fault in democracy; it is the essence of democracy,” Netanyahu said. “As long as a simple principle, which I am careful of, is preserved: that the court must remain an independent authority.”

The prime minister and right-wing allies have backed legislation to nullify the High Court of Justice’s oversight of Knesset decisions, though they have had difficulty passing it in parliament. Critics say the legislation would unbalance Israel’s democracy and accuse Netanyahu of seeking the changes as part of a strategy to protect himself against prosecution in three corruption cases he is facing. Supporters say it is needed to stop what they claim is the court’s left-leaning stymieing of government action, even on matters of state security.

One of Shamgar’s career milestones was a 1995 ruling that anchored the court’s right to conduct judicial reviews of Knesset legislation and review whether laws conform with the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

“Meir’s unique contribution to shaping the legal system is priceless,” Netanyahu said. “His firm and consistent belief in freedom of speech, individual liberties and tolerance is reflected in every judgment he made, as is his recognition of the supreme importance of state security.”

Rivlin and Hayut also spoke, with Rivlin recalling how Shamgar stood against excessive governmental power and Hayut saying his statesmanlike approach was an example of how public servants — including politicians — should do the right thing “even if it conflicts with one’s personal good.”

President Reuven Rivlin attends the funeral service for late former president of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Rivlin said Shamgar spoke out “against public corruption” and “strengthened the protection of tolerance and freedom of expression.

“You were committed and devoted to human rights and the rule of law. You stood up for the importance of checks and balances between the branches [of government]. Balances whose purpose is to prevent the creation of excessive governmental power.”

Chief Justice of SUpreme Court Esther Hayut speaks at the funeral service for late former president of the Israeli Supreme Court Meir Shamgar at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 22, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Dan Shamgar, eulogized his father, saying “Dad fulfilled the Zionist vision that was so deeply ingrained in him throughout his life, out of a sense of mission and commitment to the nation, the land, society and the fundamental values he carried with him.”

Former Supreme Court chief justice Meir Shamgar on May 19, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Shamgar joined Israel’s top court in 1975 and eight years later took over as chief justice, a position he held for 12 years until 1995. He was to be buried later Tuesday afternoon at Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem.

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