In tearful farewell, Supreme Court president urges Israel to protect democracy

Miriam Naor warns judicial independence ‘shouldn’t be taken for granted’; colleagues hail outgoing justice for her dedication, integrity

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Outgoing president of the Supreme Court Judge Miriam Naor with incoming Supreme Court president Esther Hayut during a ceremony in honor of Naor's retirement in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Outgoing president of the Supreme Court Judge Miriam Naor with incoming Supreme Court president Esther Hayut during a ceremony in honor of Naor's retirement in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court President Miriam Naor bid farewell to the bench on Thursday with an emotional speech imploring Israel to safeguard its 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 being a judge,” the 70-year-old justice said tearfully in a speech marking the end of her 38-year career.

“The State of Israel can be proud of the independence of its judiciary, who fear nothing but the law,” Naor said. “Judicial independence, however, should not be taken for granted. We must protect it.”

“If we do not protect democracy, democracy will not protect us,” she said.

Naor’s speech came as right-wing politicians mounted calls to curtail the courts’ power, and days after the president gave a fiery speech accusing government attempts to undermine the legal system of mounting a “coup” against the pillars of Israeli democracy.

Attending Naor’s farewell ceremony at the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem were Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and incoming Supreme Court President Esther Hayut.

Shaked, who publicly clashed with Naor on several occasions during her tenure — most recently over Naor’s refusal to participate in a settlements jubilee celebration — told the outgoing court president she has always regarded her “like an old friend.”

“It’s no secret that we’ve had quite a few disagreements,” Shaked 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.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during the farewell ceremony for Supreme Court President Miriam Naor in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his remarks, Mandelblit praised Naor’s dedication and work ethic and offered tacit criticism of government efforts to weaken the court.

“You have done it all for the sake of justice and human rights,” he said, adding that Naor “courageously and resolutely stood up to those who sought to undermine the independence of the Supreme Court, which is a cornerstone of democracy.

“The rule of law and respect for verdicts do not only apply to citizens, but also to the government and the Knesset,” Mandelblit said,  in apparent criticism of recent efforts to bypass the courts’ authority.

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.

While right-wing lawmakers accused the justices of judicial activism, 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.

Last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett vowed to advance a constitutional Basic Law that would rein in the Supreme Court. He accused the justices of overstepping their mandate by rejecting Knesset legislation in a series of recent rulings.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor, at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

In response, Naor authored an article in the Israel Bar Association journal rejecting politicians’ efforts to hobble the judiciary, which she said is sufficiently robust to withstand attempts to exert influence over it.

President Reuven Rivlin also publicly defended the Supreme Court last week. In a passionate defense of Israel’s judicial system, Rivlin opened the winter Knesset session saying government attempts to undermine them 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.

Naor, 70, was elected to the Supreme Court in 2003, and assumed the position of chief justice in 2015. Justice Esther Hayut will replace her to become the 12th president of the Supreme Court.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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