ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Knesset law committee chair rejects his own legal adviser as ‘biased’

In stormy debate on controversial plans to overhaul judiciary, MK Simcha Rothman calls on Gur Bligh to retract opinion, sparking outcry from opposition lawmakers

MK Simcha Rotman, chair of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, left, and committee legal adviser Gur Bligh, right, during a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Simcha Rotman, chair of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, left, and committee legal adviser Gur Bligh, right, during a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee on Monday clashed with the committee’s own legal adviser, calling him biased during a heated debate on the government’s controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system.

MK Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party was leading a discussion on changes to Basic Law: The Judiciary, which would enact several radical changes to the legal system, when he angrily cut off the committee’s legal adviser attorney, Gur Bligh.

Bligh was attempting to expand on his comments from Friday, when he had recommended that the proposed changes, which the government is trying to rush through parliament, should only come into effect from the next Knesset. The non-binding legal opinion argued that such a far-reaching overhaul should only take effect after another general election, giving the public time to decide if it backs the shift.

At the meeting Monday, Bligh explained why such profound changes as those in the pipeline should be treated differently from more simple adjustments to the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. However, Rothman cut him off.

“The preparatory document from the Knesset legal adviser is biased,” Rothman said, despite conceding that some parts of it were “correct.”

“Part of it is a built-in bias of jurists and part of it is a bias that results maybe from a lack of agreement or other reasons,” he said. “I don’t say these things lightly and it pains me to say them because a biased opinion by its very nature makes it difficult to be able to adopt even the correct parts.”

Rothman then advised Bligh to “take back” his remarks, prompting outrage from opposition lawmakers at the meeting.

MK Gideon Sa’ar, who served as justice minister in the previous government, said it was “simply unbelievable. I advise you, Mister Chairman, to take back your last suggestion.”

Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharrar told Rothman she had never seen a legal adviser treated in such a manner to which Rothman responded, “I have never seen a legal opinion like this.”

Labor MK Gilad Kariv called Rothman’s behavior “unprecedented” and was eventually ordered by Rothman to leave the meeting, as was Labor MK Naama Lazimi who told Rothman he was “intimidating the legal counsel.”

The government is eager to pass these reforms — the first package in a series of planned measures — before the end of the Knesset’s winter session on April 2, but has been met with intense criticism from large segments of the public, opposition parties, jurists, economists, and business leaders.

The draft bill proposed by Rothman would give the government complete control over the appointment of judges; severely restrict the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review over legislation; allow the Knesset to override a High Court decision to strike down legislation; make legislation immune from judicial review at the beginning of the legislative process; prevent the High Court from reviewing Basic Laws; and prevent the court from using the principle of “reasonableness” to assess administrative decisions by the government and other state agencies.

In his Friday opinion, Bligh wrote “The proposed amendment has far-reaching consequences for [the system of] government and the relations between the branches of government.”

“It changes the balance of power between them, and gives considerable power to the coalition majority and the executive branch,” he continued, noting in particular the broad powers these branches of government would wield over the judiciary and their ability to force through legislation with almost no judicial oversight.

Bligh said his recommendation was therefore that if the reforms are enacted, they should “be implemented with a forward-looking view starting from the next Knesset, and not be implemented immediately, in order to strengthen the power of a given government and coalition.”

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