Esther Hayut unanimously elected next Supreme Court president

Top justice to assume post on October 26, when incumbent Miriam Naor retires

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Portrait of the Jerusalem Supreme Court Judge, Esther Hayut, on May 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel’s Judicial Appointments Committee on Tuesday unanimously appointed Justice Esther Hayut as the 12th president of the Supreme Court.

The vote was held according to the convention that the court presidency goes to the longest-serving judge.

Israeli-born Hayut, who will begin her six-year term on October 26, joined the Supreme Court bench in 2003 and will replace incumbent Miriam Naor, who is set to retire in the fall. Justice Hanan Melcer will serve as Hayut’s deputy.

Politicians from across the spectrum congratulated Hayut on her appointment, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yoel (Yuli) Edelstein.

Edelstein said he was expecting “fruitful cooperation” that would also “preserve the separation of authority.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attends a ceremony marking at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Mickey Rosenthal (Zionist Union) reminded Hayut on Twitter that “the defenders of justice have always suffered persecution and slander” and urged her to “not be afraid, be brave. Justice will not be carried out in fear.”

The current nine-member judicial selection panel consists of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked; Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon; two lawmakers from the governing coalition, Nurit Koren (Likud) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu); representatives of the Bar Association; and three Supreme Court judges — Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein and Salim Joubran.

Seven out of the nine — or two less than the number of those present — must approve judicial appointments, with the Supreme Court justices usually voting as a bloc. In practice, this prevents the appointment of judges without the Supreme Court’s approval.

Selection committee member and lawmaker Koren (Likud) boycotted Tuesday’s meeting to protest the continuation of the convention which awards the presidency to the longest-serving judge.

Miriam Naor, left, Ayelet Shaked, center, and Moshe Kahlon discussing Supreme Court candidates on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

She told the Haaretz newspaper, “I’m not against Hayut, but I’m not prepared to be a rubber stamp, to come and take part in a discussion just because they agreed beforehand that Hayut will be the president. What’s the whole discussion for?”

The change comes amid right-wing attempts, spearheaded by Shaked (Jewish Home), to rein in the Supreme Court or change the makeup of the justices to incorporate more conservative views.

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 both the need to protect individual rights against other arms of the law, and to keep a watchful eye on government, as key.

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.

Critics claim that the present system for selecting justices results in a court comprising largely like-minded figures who seek the appointment only of those who share their ideological agenda.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (R) seen with Supreme Court president Miriam Naor during a Judicial Selection Committee meeting at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

A week ago, in an attack on a High Court decision to strike down a government plan to indefinitely jail asylum-seekers refusing deportation, Shaked told a conference of the Israel Bar Association that “Zionism will not continue to bend its neck to a system of individual rights.”

She claimed that the court “did not see the preservation of a Jewish majority [in Israel] as a value worth being weighed” and later vowed to introduce legislation allowing Israel to deport migrants even without their consent.

Last year, amid deliberations over the appointment of new justices, the justice minister locked horns with Naor over a proposed bill that would see judges appointed with a regular majority of votes from the selection committee. At the time, Naor accused Shaked of seeking to unfairly reshape the nomination process, and announced she would end private consultations with the minister. She even warned that if Shaked prevented the Judicial Appointments Committee from announcing likely choice Hayut as the next court president, she would take the matter to the High Court.

The bill was later shelved and the judicial committee resumed discussions on the nomination process.

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