Knesset panel plows ahead with judicial appointments bill despite 5,400 reservations

Law committee expected to advance measure on Wednesday, setting core pillar of judicial overhaul on course to become law next week; opposition protests procedural changes in vote

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman at a committee hearing, March 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman at a committee hearing, March 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset was moving closer to approving one of the coalition’s core bills in its effort to overhaul the judiciary on Wednesday, which will give the government control of most judicial appointments if passed in its current form — despite thousands of reservations submitted against the measure by the opposition.

The committee reviewing the bill is expected to advance the measure on Wednesday and the final Knesset votes for the bill to become law are expected to be held next week before the Knesset takes a monthlong break in April.

In voting that went to the early hours of Wednesday morning, and then resumed later Wednesday morning, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman angered the opposition by switching from individual votes to voting on the 5,400 reservations in batches.

“The man never misses an opportunity to show what democracy will be like after they finish legislating their coup,” said Labor MK Gilad Kariv, who led an opposition walkout of the meeting.

But while the opposition protested, Rothman had won approval from the Knesset’s legal adviser and the committee’s legal adviser to switch to batch voting, a standard move when there are more than 2,500 reservations submitted, many of them repetitive.

The voting was stopped after the switch, but then resumed at 10 a.m.

Reservations approved by the committee will come to a Knesset floor vote alongside the bill’s second reading, and in the unlikely case that any are accepted, will be integrated into the bill and delay its third, and final, reading to become law.

Set to remake the Judicial Selection Committee, the bill will put key judicial appointments within the coalition’s control. The momentous shift has been debated in the committee since January, but this week Rothman presented a new, more complicated formula for the appointments.

Unlike the current system for judicial appointments, which requires a compromise between professional and political panel members to install Supreme Court justices, the bill will give a governing coalition full control over the first two appointments to the Supreme Court which open up during its tenure and require the support of one opposition member for a third appointment, and the support of both an opposition member and a judicial representative for a fourth.

It will also change the Supreme Court presidency appointment process, to allow the coalition to appoint the chief justice, further boosting its control over the appointment of justices to the High Court and potentially giving it full control over appointments to lower courts.

Opposition leaders have denounced the bill, saying it will politicize the judiciary, end its independence, and mark the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy. They also note that on average each Knesset only appoints between two and three High Court justices.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman heads a committee hearing, March 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mansour Abbas, who leads the Islamic Ra’am party, told the committee that the Supreme Court upholds the rights of Israel’s Arab minority and its political representatives.

Abbas tied the push to reform the judiciary to disputes within Israeli Jewish society, including the ultra-Orthodox effort to formalize religious study exemptions from military service, which has been blocked by the court.

“But you can’t solve one problem by creating an injustice,” Abbas told the community’s elected representatives.

MK Yulia Malinovsky from the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu opposition party said she had substantive concerns with areas not addressed by the hasty bill proposal, which was swapped in for the original bill only days ago.

Malinovsky pointed to the fact that the new bill does not have comprehensive fitness requirements for Supreme Court applicants.

“How can it be that someone who became a judge yesterday can be a Supreme Court justice?” she asked the committee. “There has to be a training period.”

Malinovsky also expressed fear that candidates “can be influenced by the will of politicians,” as politicians will be ultimately responsible for appointing justices.

Opposition members also claimed that the bill’s revamped content is a “new subject,” meaning it is outside of the scope of a previous version of the bill that passed its first Knesset reading.

Rothman swatted those concerns away, saying the alterations were only a “cosmetic change,” but the matter will ultimately be decided by the Knesset House Committee. Both committees are controlled by the coalition, and the House Committee is expected to reject the claim.

While the Knesset’s legal adviser wrote in a letter to the committee on Tuesday morning that she did not see a problem in the committee’s general procedures, she did press Rothman to allow enough time for the opposition to submit further reservations against the new draft, rather than vote on it on Tuesday, as was initially planned.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, left, speaks at a press conference in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 21, 2023, alongside Constitution Committee head Simcha Rothman. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the committee charged on toward advancing the bill, Rothman took a pause on Tuesday to stand alongside the leader of his Religious Zionism party, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and make a call for dialogue with the opposition. The opposition has refused to engage until the coalition pauses its legislative march, which it has refused to do.

“The outline of the committee for the selection of judges that we have formulated constitutes on the one hand an important amendment that, as stated, will diversify the composition of the court, and on the other hand provides a response and dispels many concerns that we have heard,” said Smotrich

“Because of our responsibility for the unity of the people, and in order to lead this process through broad consensus, we decided to slow down and reach out for dialogue,” Smotrich said.

He nevertheless vowed to push ahead with the votes on the controversial bill next week.

“The bill that will be brought to the Knesset plenum next week will carry out an important reform,” he said, claiming it would prevent judges from “appointing themselves,” though the current makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee does not give the judges on the panel the ability to appoint judges without the agreement of the ruling coalition.

“No longer will there be a minority of elected representatives [on the committee] and a veto for judges and jurists. The people in all its parts will influence in an appropriate and balanced manner the character of the next judges.”

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