Promising to “protect” the justice system from politicians’ attempts to weaken it, Esther Hayut was sworn in Thursday as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court, replacing Miriam Naor in an official state ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Amid an ongoing public debate over the role of the constitutional High Court of Justice in Israel’s body politic, the legal and political echelon gathered to induct Hayut as the country’s top legal authority, just hours after her predecessor delivered an impassioned defense of judicial independence at her own retirement ceremony.
Speaking to a crowd that included President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Hayut said that Israel’s ongoing existence is thanks to the rule of law that, if applied properly, “serves as the glue which keeps our nation together.”
“I pray that the justice system will not crack” under the pressure being put on it through attempts to “limit the Supreme Court’s power,” she said.
A daughter of Holocaust survivors, Hayut was born in a ma’abara, or transit camp for immigrants, in Herzliya.
She began her legal career as an intern at the law firm of Hayim Tzadok, a justice minister, where she went on to serve as an associate from 1977 until 1985. After leaving the firm, Hayut opened a firm together with her attorney husband, David Hayut, specializing in commercial and tort law.
Hayut has served as a judge for over 27 years, having been an appointed to the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court in 1990 and then to the city’s district court in 1996. She was handed the Supreme Court gavel in 2003, and has since served as one of its 15 justices.
She is now expected to lead the court until her mandatory retirement at age 70 in 2023, as only the third woman to serve as Israel’s chief justice.
The changing of the guard comes with right-wing politicians stepping up their attempts to curtail the courts’ power, and days after the president gave a fiery speech accusing the government of attempting to undermine the legal system and mount a “coup” against the pillars of Israeli democracy.
Last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett vowed to advance a constitutional Basic Law that would rein in the High Court. He accused the justices of overstepping their mandate by rejecting Knesset legislation in a series of recent rulings.
“I want to express my hope that myself and the justice minister will be able to join hands and work in cooperation and mutual respect for the sake of the justice system and in protecting its status,” Hayut said of Shaked, who has publicly clashed with Naor over the purview of the court.
Earlier Tuesday, at her farewell ceremony, Naor implored her successor to safeguard Israel’s democratic character and keep its judiciary independent.
“Even today, as the decades have passed and I have served in all the courts, I am grateful that my path led me to become a judge,” the 70-year-old justice said tearfully in a speech culminating a 38-year career.
“The State of Israel can be proud of the independence of its judiciary, which fears nothing but the law,” Naor said. “Judicial independence, however, should not be taken for granted. We must protect it.”
Naor was elected to the Supreme Court in 2003, and assumed the position of chief justice in 2015.
Shaked, whose most recent clash with Naor was over the Supreme Court’s refusal to participate in a settlements jubilee celebration, told the outgoing court president she has always regarded her as “an old friend.”
“It’s no secret that we’ve had quite a few disagreements,” she said. “But we knew how to overcome them in a productive and respectful way for the sake of the people and the State of Israel.”
Speaking at Hayut’s induction, Shaked said that legislation was needed to “set boundaries” for the Supreme Court, adding that she was confident in the new president’s ability to lead it forward to a “better place.”
The Supreme Court has frequently irked right-wing and Orthodox politicians with an interventionist ethos pioneered by Aharon Barak, court president from 1995 to 2006. Barak expanded the range of issues the court dealt with, viewing the need to both protect individual rights against other arms of the law, and keep a watchful eye on government, as key.
While right-wing lawmakers accuse the justices of excessive activism that promotes a leftist agenda, the court’s defenders say its powers have developed to fill the void left by a Knesset that is famously unable to settle key questions of law and society and that frequently avoids deciding on issues of religious freedom, civil liberties or the rights of Palestinians.
Addressing both representatives of the court and the lawmakers and cabinet ministers present, Rivlin beseeched them to “make amends” for the strained relations between the judicial and legislative branches.
“The disagreements of the past few months have tested us. You have before you a rare opportunity to work together to regulate the relations between the authorities and to anchor them in legislation,” he said. “I truly believe that it is in your power to bring about proper regulation by an agreement reached. It is the only way in which we can serve the public – by strengthening their trust in the institutions; strengthening governance and the judicial system.”
“I am full of belief that with your joint efforts, we can make amends and bring about an appropriate resolution based on full agreement and cooperation through bridge-building and compromise,” Rivlin added.
On Monday, the president publicly defended the Supreme Court during a controversial speech to open the Knesset winter session, slamming government attempts to hobble the court in what he warned would amount to a “coup” against democracy.
Rivlin accused political leaders of weakening state institutions by attacking them for narrow political gain, sparking criticism from the ruling Likud party.
In his address Thursday, Netanyahu delivered an implied rebuke of Rivlin, praising the fraught debate over the court’s powers and role in Israel as evidence of the robustness of Israeli democracy.
“Israel’s judicial system is renowned throughout the world for the quality of its judges, its independence, and the fact that it represents the supreme values of millennia, which have again found fertile ground in Israel’s democracy,” he said.
Netanyahu cautioned against believing that the tensions between lawmakers and the court in recent years are a sign of a weakening of democracy.
“There is a natural and healthy tension between the branches of government,” he said, mentioning clashes between courts and legislatures in Germany, the US, Britain and elsewhere. “This debate over where the boundary passes between the branches [of government] is not the end of democracy, it is the essence of democracy.”
Concluding, he added, “these boundaries must change with the times. But what doesn’t change is the need for a strong, independent and honest court.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.