Levin admits original judicial appointments bill was a danger to democracy

In resurfaced remarks, justice minister notes ‘valid concern’ over full coalition control in picking judges; says bill, which passed 1st reading before halt, was therefore softened

Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the government’s judicial overhaul plans, conceded that a key piece of his legislation would have led to a situation unacceptable in a democratic country, in which the coalition would exercise control over all three branches of government.

In an interview with Channel 14 two weeks ago that circulated online Monday, Levin said that while many arguments against his proposals were baseless, he accepted a charge critics made against the original judicial appointments bill, which would have handed the coalition an automatic majority on the panel that chooses judges: that such a change would “lead to a situation in which all three branches of government become one branch.”

“This claim, that [the blurring of branches] could ultimately lead to a constitutional crisis, is a claim that can’t be ignored — this cannot happen in a democratic country,” Levin said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted the judicial overhaul process last week in order to allow for talks on a compromise, hours before the key judicial appointments bill was set to become law.

Levin’s interview snippet was picked up by the Haaretz daily and Ynet journalist Attila Somfalvi on Monday, who charged that the justice minister blatantly admitted that his legislation was anti-democratic.

But Levin also claimed in the interview that the government responded to the fears by softening the proposal. The original bill had passed its first reading; the ostensibly softened legislation, which now awaits its second and third (final) Knesset readings, gives the coalition full control over the first two Supreme Court justices appointed in each Knesset term, and near-complete control of appointments of other judges.

Illustrative: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other justices at a hearing of the High Court of Justice on petitions against the appointment of Shas party leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction for tax offenses, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I think it should have been heard, so what we did was simply come and say, gentlemen, this valid concern is what we are responding to,” Levin said, noting that the new bill allows a coalition to appoint two justices per term, while a third and fourth would require broader agreement from opposition and judicial representatives on the panel.

The average number of Supreme Court justices appointed in a Knesset term is 2.6, meaning that a coalition can still steadily determine the character of the court. Moreover, the original and current legislation allows the coalition to appoint the Supreme Court president, giving it another potential vote in the selection committee and potential control of Supreme Court panels.

Levin had refused to pause the legislation and was reportedly adamantly opposed to efforts to soften it, reportedly threatening to quit the coalition if Netanyahu were to do so. Defending the original legislation in late February, Levin said that it would allow the creation of “a much more diverse court.”

In the Channel 14 interview, Levin said that the Knesset did not need to rubberstamp all his wishes.

“I don’t hesitate to stand up and take a look [at the bills], and say, OK, on this matter… there is wisdom in what is being said [by critics], and therefore it is right to correct it,” he said. He insisted, though, that the overhaul was “good for all citizens of Israel.”

“It will create a Supreme Court that will give everyone a voice and everyone a place, with judges from every color of the rainbow,” he said.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key parliamentarian behind the overhaul, slammed journalist Somfalvi for ostensibly misrepresenting Levin’s remarks, noting that the justice minister said that the government had responded to the fears by softening the bill.

“What does the justice minister say? There was a hole in the proposal, which allowed under certain conditions the takeover of the Supreme Court by a future coalition,” Rothman tweeted.

“And since this was not the intention, we filled this hole ourselves, in response to the criticism,” he said.

Protesters have rallied against the plans for 13 weeks around the country, and have regularly blocked Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway. Police have employed water cannons and mounted police to clear demonstrators, and for the first time on Saturday used a sound cannon — a loudspeaker that emits a distressing high-frequency sound.

Police deploy a water cannon against Israelis occupying a main highway to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The judicial overhaul legislation aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government almost absolute control over the appointment of judges.

Critics say the plans will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Proponents of the measures say they will rein in a judiciary that they argue has overstepped its bounds.

The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights.

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