Netanyahu taps Yariv Levin as justice minister to oversee major judicial reforms

Likud MK a longtime proponent of passing court override measure, boosting government control of judicial appointments and lowering age of retirement for Supreme Court justices

Likud MK Yariv Levin (left) shakes hands with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after being picked as the next government's justice minister, December 28, 2022. (Likud)
Likud MK Yariv Levin (left) shakes hands with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after being picked as the next government's justice minister, December 28, 2022. (Likud)

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday named MK Yariv Levin for the post of justice minister in the next government, placing the Likud lawmaker in charge of the incoming coalition’s plans to overhaul the justice system.

Netanyahu’s government of right, religious and far-right parties is set to be sworn in on Thursday.

Levin, a Netanyahu confidant, will oversee some of the new government’s most controversial policies, with all parties obligated by coalition deals to push ahead with judicial reforms that will see the Knesset reduce the oversight power of the courts and expand its control over judicial appointments.

A staunch supporter of judicial reform, Levin is said to have demanded wide latitude to enact a comprehensive overhaul of judicial appointments as well as pass a so-called override clause that would let the Knesset reinstate laws invalidated by the High Court of Justice. The lawmaker vowed earlier this year to end “rule by judges.”

Israel’s right wing has for years sought to limit the justice system, portraying it as an interventionist and left-leaning roadblock to its legislative agenda. Coalition agreements for the next government have prioritized passing the override clause.

According to his spokesman earlier in the year, Levin’s reforms would involve replacing the current Judicial Selection Committee, under which elected officials share responsibility for appointing the 15 Supreme Court justices with senior judicial figures and legal professionals. Instead, the government would nominate candidates, and the Knesset would approve them. Others in the incoming coalition have proposed less drastic changes to the selection system, but also giving politicians on the panel greater sway than at present over the judges and Israel Bar representatives on it.

A report earlier this month also said Levin has proposed lowering the age of retirement for Supreme Court justices from 70 to 67. If enacted, the move would require four of the 15 serving judges to step aside, including Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, 69, Uzi Vogelman, 68, Yosef Elron, 67, and Anat Baron 69.

Supreme Court justices arrive for a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If both moves are approved, the government can effectively fill those four spots on the court with justices to its taste.

Levin will also oversee the justice system as it handles Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial. He has advocated tightening the definition of the criminal offense “fraud and breach of trust,” a poorly defined statute that is at the heart of the Likud chief’s trial.

The charge can cover everything from not reporting an expensive meal to using one’s position to pull strings for a friend.

A former vice chairman of the Israeli Bar Association, Levin has been involved in legal reform since first joining the Likud’s Knesset slate in 2009. A godson of Likud founder Menachem Begin, his star quickly rose, and he has served as a minister three times.

In the past weeks, he served temporarily as Knesset speaker to chaperone legislation desired by Likud’s coalition partners, redefining ministerial positions before the government is sworn in.

Then-Knesset speaker Yariv Levin presides over a legislative session, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu was formerly a public champion of the independence of the High Court, has been hesitant to advance judicial reforms in the past, and is said to want to slow the pace of the process. With only three months before the Knesset breaks for its Passover recess, pushing a judicial reform agenda now may not give the new government time to pass its full platform before a lengthy break.

The judicial reforms have been criticized as a danger to democracy by the attorney general, as well as incoming opposition leaders and academics, who regard it as the only brake on the potential excess of a governing majority, and the last resort protection of minority rights, since Israel has no constitution or Bill of Rights.

Advocates of reform have said it is a needed fix to reduce activist court power.

Since establishing its own right to substantive judicial review in 1995, the top court has struck down 22 laws.

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