Knesset panel to resume vote on reservations to judicial appointments bill on Sunday

Committee rejects 1,900 of 5,400 objections to contentious legislation; two approved, will come to a Knesset floor vote alongside bill’s second reading

The Knesset's Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee headed by Religious Zionism  MK Simcha Rothman meets to vote on more than 5,000 reservations to the judicial appointments bill, on March 22, 2023. (Committee spokesperson's office)
The Knesset's Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee headed by Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman meets to vote on more than 5,000 reservations to the judicial appointments bill, on March 22, 2023. (Committee spokesperson's office)

The Knesset committee pushing a contentious bill that will give the government control of most judicial appointments as part of its efforts to overhaul the judiciary has adjourned its review of thousands of reservations submitted by the opposition against the measure, and will resume its work on Sunday.

The Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee has been moving quickly to prepare the bill for its final Knesset votes before becoming law, a vote that is expected to be held next week before the Knesset takes a monthlong break in April for Passover. The opposition has submitted some 5,400 reservations to the bill, which at first were considered individually but are being weighed in batches as of Wednesday morning.

So far, 1,900 reservations were rejected while two were approved, according to a committee statement late Wednesday. The two reservations, and any additional ones, 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.

Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the bill, ended the committee discussions late Wednesday and will resume the review of the thousands of remaining reservations on Sunday, the statement said.

The bill is set to remake the Judicial Selection Committee and 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.

MK Simcha Rothman, Head of the Constitution Committee, at a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

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.

The original legislation, approved last month in its first reading in the Knesset plenum, by contrast, gives the coalition total control over all judicial appointments without the need for support from either the opposition or the judiciary.

Rothman’s modifications, introduced late Sunday and quickly approved by coalition members Monday, were presented as an ostensible “softening” of the original bill — one of several in the coalition’s proposed legislative package to radically revamp the judiciary, and a plan that has been widely denounced by the opposition and numerous legal scholars and jurists as a power grab.

On Monday night, Rothman announced that the opposition had just about 12 hours to begin submitting its objections to the bill as the Knesset’s legal adviser pressed him to allow for more time.

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.

Opposition parties and national protest organizers rejected Rothman’s changes to the bill, calling it an attempt to mislead the public into thinking the judicial overhaul plan has been moderated, while ensuring the politicization of the court.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman hold a press conference in the Knesset, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Protest organizers are gearing up for a fresh day of demonstrations on Thursday, with dozens of large gatherings expected to draw as many as half-a-million people to the streets in major cities, on highways and outside of coalition members’ homes.

Rothman said Tuesday that his “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.

“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.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

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.

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