Lawmaker Simcha Rothman silenced a representative of the Israel Courts Administration and threatened to slap her with an ethics complaint at a hearing of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee over which he was presiding Wednesday, after she asserted the meeting may be intended to reduce public trust in the court system.
The hearing, requested by Likud MK Ariel Kallner during the parliamentary recess, was called to discuss potential judicial conflicts of interest after it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit took part in discussions and deliberations in cases involving businesses tied to his family members (Hebrew).
According to Courts Administration representative Hanit Avraham-Becher, a judicial commission examined and dismissed the claims against Amit, who is in line to be the next Supreme Court president based on the current seniority system.
“The cycle of allegations raises concerns that the motives [behind the hearing] are not substantive, and are intended to undermine trust in the judicial system,” Avraham-Becher told the committee.
Rothman interrupted her, demanding a retraction and an apology to Kallner, and warning that if Avraham-Becher did not do so he would file an ethics complaint against her with the Civil Service Commission. Avraham-Becher did not apologize but sought to complete her remarks.
Rothman refused, ordering Knesset ushers to keep her microphone away from her.
“I wonder what the powers of the Courts Administration are and what law gives you the authority to address our motives,” Rothman said to Avraham-Becher.
“Have you undergone psychological training regarding the motives of Knesset members?” the committee chair continued. “I expect you… to apologize to MK Kallner,” Rothman added, accusing Avraham-Becher of “unparalleled audacity.”
“If you want to take back your words, you are welcome to do so. If not — you will not get the right to speak,” he told her. “You’re welcome to leave.”
Avraham-Becher left the hearing.
Sagit Afek, the Knesset’s top legal adviser, later censured Rothman for silencing Avraham-Becher, saying it “harms the committee’s effectiveness and the Knesset’s standing.”
In a letter to Rothman sent later Wednesday, Afek said that she asked that Avraham-Becher be allowed back into the meeting. According to Afek, Rothman complained that the Courts Administration representative had disrespected a third of the committee and demanded that Afek first tell Avraham to apologize, which Afek refused.
“When the head of a committee uses sentences like you did today in the hearing, it is terribly insulting to a public servant giving testimony on behalf of a body she is representing,” she wrote, urging him to speak respectfully even with those he disagrees.
Earlier this year Rothman used his Constitution Committee chairmanship to rapidly push through a raft of legislation aimed at radically curtailing the judiciary’s power as part of the government’s broader judicial overhaul plan — though most of the bills have since been frozen. The MK has long argued that unelected judges hold too much authority and that the bench needs further ideological diversity.
Hardline coalition members, including Rothman, have bashed Amit, who is considered a liberal judge, and have pushed to break the seniority custom that would make him the next Supreme Court president.
"אני אאלץ לבקש שתוגש עלייך תלונה" – כך אמר ח"כ רוטמן לחנית אברהם בכר, נציגת הנהלת בית המשפט, כאשר טענה בדיון בחוקה: "המטרה היא אחת – להוביל לפגיעה באמון הציבור ובתי המשפט"
ח"כ רוטמן: "או שאת חוזרת בך מהמשפט הזה, או שסיימת לדבר"@rothmar @ArielKallner @JusticeGov @NoaShpigel pic.twitter.com/cODE1QndWJ
— ערוץ כנסת (@KnessetT) September 20, 2023
“The fact that you are from the Courts Administration does not make you blue-blooded, allowing you to insult committee members,” Rothman said.
Kallner, in his remarks opening the hearing, said that Supreme Court justices have conflicts of interest that “scream to the heavens,” yet they avoid oversight. The Likud MK suggested, “It could be that we are in a classist world, where there exists a class of superhumans who are impartial and will stand up [to scrutiny] no matter what.”
Such rhetoric targeting ostensible elites in the judiciary and other positions of power has increasingly been employed by coalition officials, including by second minister in the Justice Ministry David Amsalem, who on Tuesday likened overhaul supporters to “second-class citizens” and Blacks under South Africa’s official apartheid system.
Opposition members at the committee similarly connected the events to the broader struggle within Israel, calling the hearing a “witch hunt” against judges.
Labor MK Efrat Rayten said that “instead of dealing with the existing conflict of interests between the prime minister and the judiciary,” the coalition was “conducting a witch hunt against judges based upon allegations that have already been examined. This is a systematic destruction of all the country’s… systems.”
After she argued with Rothman, Rayten was removed from the hearing.
Rothman highlighted the Constitution Committee’s mandate to provide oversight over the judiciary, and dismissed criticism against Wednesday’s hearing as both politically motivated against the coalition and an attempt to provide cover to judges for alleged wrongdoing.
The committee’s “role is to provide oversight,” Rothman said. “This mobilization of MKs who say they don’t want to deal with the matter because ‘we are in a campaign to fight against the coalition,’ this is the flak jacket that they’re trying to put on actions that they know should not be done.”
Before her remarks were cut short, Avraham-Becher told the committee that “a judge is obliged to sit in court unless ‘there are circumstances that create a real fear of bias in the conduct of the trial,'” she said, quoting the Courts Law.
In addition to conducting public hearings and being subject to special ethics standards, judges in Israel can have complaints submitted against them to a public oversight commission. If the commission finds merit in the complaints, it can recommend that the Judicial Selection Committee terminate a judgeship, or make a similar recommendation to a minister or the president to petition the Judicial Selection Committee to remove the judge.
The justice minister also has the ability to file complaints against judges to a special disciplinary court.
In addition, each court maintains a list, voluntarily compiled by each judge, of impediments to hearing a case, to aid the administration in directing cases away from their dockets. In 2020, these impediment lists were published.
Justice Amit participated in cases related to subsidiaries of companies he listed on his impediments, but the judiciary defended his actions.
For example, Amit adjudicated a case involving the First International Bank of Israel. His brother, at the time, served as the CEO of Bank Poaley Agudat Israel, a subsidiary of FIBI. The judiciary said the connection was not strong enough to necessitate that Amit recuse himself.
“When the bank is a [mere] formal or marginal respondent, or one of many banks, and thus the bank or its interests are not the focus of the procedure — there is no room for disqualification due to conflicts of interest,” it continued.