ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 60

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Justice minister, others barred from speaking at farewell for court head Hayut

Court says pending cases would make speech by Levin at ceremony inappropriate, will instead only allow justices to deliver remarks; President’s Residence swearing-in called off

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend the opening of the Magistrate's Court in the northern city of Safed, on September 27, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)
File: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend the opening of the Magistrate's Court in the northern city of Safed, on September 27, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin and other officials will not deliver speeches at a farewell ceremony for retiring Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, amid ongoing tensions surrounding the government’s attempts to overhaul the judiciary.

And in another break with tradition, President Isaac Herzog will not host a ceremony to bid the outgoing court chief farewell and swear in a replacement for Hayut, with Levin refusing to convene the panel that would nominate a new Supreme Court president and reportedly rejecting the bench’s preferred choice.

In a statement carried by the Kan public broadcaster, which first reported on the unusual moves, the courts’ administration confirmed that only Hayut and other justices would speak at the mid-October ceremony at the Supreme Court, as well as a farewell ceremony for Justice Anat Baron, also retiring this month.

According to the report, court officials felt it would be inappropriate for Levin to speak in light of the fact that he is a party to various cases in front of the bench, which also functions as the High Court.

“Due to pending and open cases, it was decided that outside parties will not deliver remarks at the farewell ceremonies, but only the [court] president and justices,” the statement read.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Levin will attend the ceremony despite not delivering a speech.

He is the driving force behind the government’s attempts to radically alter the judiciary, which has raised tensions between the government and the court. An unprecedented 15-justice panel is considering petitions against a law restricting the court’s ability to strike down government moves deemed “unreasonable.”

Levin is also facing a High Court challenge over his decision to block the Judicial Selection Committee from meeting to appoint new judges.

The minister has balked at convening the panel as he seeks changes to its composition in order to grant the government veritable carte blanche on choosing judges from the Supreme Court on down, another part of the wider effort to water down the independence of the judiciary, which the justice minister considers overly activist.

15 Supreme Court justices at the first judicial overhaul hearing in Jerusalem, September 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last month, the High Court placed an interim injunction on Levin asking him to explain why he hasn’t convened the selection panel.

Levin must submit a substantive response to the petitions, by October 9, with a hearing on the matter set for no later than October 23.

Also disqualified from speaking at the farewell for the same reason were Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who has submitted opinions calling for the court to strike down government laws, and Bar Association head Amit Becher, who has petitioned the court against the government, Kan reported.

File: Supreme Court Justice Anat Baron in the Supreme Court, March 8, 2017. Baron is heading the three-justice panel hearing petitions against Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s decision not to convene the Judicial Selection Committee. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

According to the network, Levin had been the real target of the move to curb who will speak, with court functionaries fearing he could sully the festive event by using the platform to rail against the justices and the court.

Traditionally, retiring justices hold a farewell ceremony at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, followed by a function at the President’s Residence to swear in the new court president and fete the outgoing justice. High-level dignitaries, including government ministers, top judicial officials and others, usually attend the events, with speakers usually shelving disagreement in favor of comity.

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)

Levin’s refusal to allow the Judicial Selection Committee to meet, however, has created a situation in which the court will have no official president to swear in once Hayut resigns her position on October 16, when she will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The statement from the courts’ administration confirmed that with no swearing-in, there would be no event at the President’s Residence, which usually also includes words of farewell for the outgoing court chief.

According to Kan, Hayut requested the whole President’s Residence ceremony be called off, reflecting friction over Levin not allowing a successor to be chosen.

Associates of Levin told the broadcaster that the minister is willing to allow the panel to convene for the appointment of Hayut’s successor, though the choice will not be made by seniority.

In a never broken, but unwritten tradition, the chief justice role is awarded to the most senior justice on the bench, which will be Justice Yitzhak Amit once Hayut retires. Both are considered to lean toward the liberal side of the bench.

High Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (center) and justices Isaac Amit (right) and Uzi Vogelman at a court hearing on petitions against the government’s reasonableness law at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In late August, Supreme Court Justice Yosef Elron tossed his hat in the ring for the presidency, upending the rubber stamp process, in a move some speculated was engineered by Levin, though both have denied working together.

Hayut and Levin have shared a relationship that could be described as prickly at best. Her stewardship of the court has been repeatedly criticized by Levin and allies as overly activist and politically biased against right-wing values and positions.

The minister’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, including moves critics say would eat away at its independence, has received fierce criticism from Hayut and massive pushback from the public.

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