4 new Supreme Court judges tapped, as right starts to shift bench
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4 new Supreme Court judges tapped, as right starts to shift bench

'Finally, a humane, judicious selection,' says Justice Minister Shaked, hailing incoming justices, 3 of whom are considered conservative or non-activist

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Miriam Naor, left, Ayelet Shaked, center, and Moshe Kahlon discussing Supreme Court candidates on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Miriam Naor, left, Ayelet Shaked, center, and Moshe Kahlon discussing Supreme Court candidates on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Right-wing lawmakers secured three conservative and non-activist judges out of four new appointments to Israel’s Supreme Court Wednesday, putting a large dent in what is seen as a liberal-dominated bench.

The Judicial Appointments Committee for the court announced that it had appointed David Mintz, Yael Willner, Yosef Elron and George Kara to the 15-member Supreme Court, out of a shortlist of 27 candidates.

Three of the four were on Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s list of preferred candidates, while the three judges on the nine-member judicial appointments panel, who voted as a bloc, failed to advance any of their nominees.

Mintz, who currently serves as a Jerusalem district judge, was thought to have been Shaked’s top pick, hailing from the West Bank Gush Etzion settlement bloc and considered a strong advocate for conservative positions.

Justice David Mintz. (Ministry of Justice)
Justice David Mintz. (Ministry of Justice)

Yosef Elron, the president of the Haifa District Court since 2013 and a known non-activist judge, was backed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who also sat on the appointments committee. Shaked was also reportedly in favor of the religious Zionist Haifa District Court Judge Yael Willner.

George Kara, a Christian Arab judge at the Tel Aviv District Court who was among the panel of judges who convicted former president Moshe Katsav of rape and sentenced him to seven years in prison, was considered a compromise candidate who gained the backing of the Israel Bar Association.

The new appointees will replace outgoing Supreme Court justices Miriam Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein, Salim Joubran and Zvi Zilbertal.

Speaking immediately after the announcement, Shaked said it was “a historic day” that could dramatically change the makeup of the country’s highest legal authority.

The head of the Haifa District Court Yosef Elron. November 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The head of the Haifa District Court Yosef Elron. November 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Finally, a humane and judicious selection that is needed as a mirror for the Israeli people. I wish them success,” she said in a statement.

In recent years, right-wing lawmakers have accused the top legal body of interventionist judicial activism as pioneered by Aharon Barak, president of the High Court from 1995 to 2006, after the courts torpedoed a series of Knesset laws it deemed unlawful.

Shaked, of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, has frequently spoken out in favor of reining in the High Court or changing the makeup of the justices to incorporate more conservative views.

The nine-member panel tasked with choosing the new justices consisted of Shaked; Kahlon; two lawmakers from the governing coalition, Nurit Koren (Likud) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu); two representatives of the Bar Association; and three Supreme Court judges, President Miriam Naor (due to retire in October), Elyakim Rubinstein (due to retire in June) and Salim Joubran (due to retire in August).

Justice Yael Willner. (Ministry of Justice)
Justice Yael Willner. (Ministry of Justice)

Naor, despite failing to secure any of her preferences, welcomed the appointees. “I wish the best to all those who were chosen today to serve as judges in the Supreme Court, we will welcome all of them warmly,” she said in a statement.

Israel’s highest court has 15 members, though only some of the judges are assigned to each case. The chief justice post is traditionally appointed automatically, based on seniority.

For the Israeli right, the Supreme Court represents the old left-leaning political elite, a bench of like-minded figures that it is determined to replace.

The left and opposition politicians fear that shifting the court’s ideological makeup will threaten Israeli democracy, upturn the system of checks and balances and leave open key issues that the fractious Knesset is unable to resolve, such as those pertaining to civil liberties, religious freedom and the rights of Palestinians.

Justice George Karra. (Ministry of Justice)
Justice George Karra. (Ministry of Justice)

In November, Shaked and Naor locked horns over the bill, lodged by three Yisrael Beytenu MKs and apparently supported by the justice minister, which would see judges appointed with a regular majority of votes from the nine-person Judicial Appointments Committee.

In a letter to Shaked, Naor wrote, “Submitting this bill at the current time represents, under the circumstances, ‘placing a gun on the table.’ It means that if some of the committee members do not agree to appoint certain candidates, preventing the appointments through a special majority, then the constitutional ‘rules of the game’ will be changed, such that they can be appointed with a regular majority by the committee members.

Judge Asher Gronis parts from retiring Judge Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin, one of the court's foremost champions of freedom of expression. L to R: Salim Jubran, Edna Arbel, Eliezer Rivlin, Asher Grunis, Miriam Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein. May 24, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Judge Asher Grunis parts from retiring Judge Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin, one of the court’s foremost champions of freedom of expression. L to R: Salim Joubran, Edna Arbel, Eliezer Rivlin, Asher Grunis, Miriam Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein. May 24, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

“Therefore, I must inform you — with the support of [court] Vice President [Elyakim] Rubenstein and Justice [Salim] Joubran — that we have no intention to continue at this time with the dialogue and early consultations to formulate a list of candidates and regarding possible agreements,” she wrote.

Ilyatov, who was involved in the drafting of the bill, pointed out at the time that it had not yet been presented to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and was therefore not yet an issue to create an uproar.

The bill was later shelved and the judicial committee discussions resumed.

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