Supreme Court chief: Plan for panel to review judges aims to intimidate justices

Supreme Court chief: Plan for panel to review judges aims to intimidate justices

Esther Hayut writes to judges that proposal rejected by Knesset, but backed by Likud party, sought to undermine public trust in the judiciary

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut attacked a recent contentious proposal to form a parliamentary committee to investigate Supreme Court Justices’ alleged conflicts of interest, writing in a letter to judges on Thursday that the failed motion was an attempt to intimidate judges and undermine public trust in the justice system.

The Knesset rejected Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich’s proposal last week with 54 lawmakers voting against, and 43 supporting it.

Hayut said the judiciary has recently faced a “dark wave” of efforts to discredit it, “that has reached its peak, or perhaps its lowest level” with the suggestion that judges be reviewed by such a panel.

She said the proposal was rooted in “ulterior motives intended only to slam the judiciary, in an attempt to intimidate us and undermine judicial independence and public trust in the courts.”

Hayut stressed that the courts’ authority is subject to criticism and does not seek to “sweep anything under the carpet.” Rather, the judiciary “is still one of the most transparent and open to review authorities” and “acts with determination and perseverance to correct what needs to be corrected and to increase the transparency of its activities.”

Judges, she wrote, “are bound by detailed rules of ethics and statutory disqualification arrangements.”

Hayut also noted that court sessions, when not limited under secrecy laws, are open to the general public and judges can be reviewed by the Public Complaints Commission.

Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem, on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a number of Likud lawmakers were not present for the vote on the review committee proposal earlier this month, despite the party’s backing for it. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party strongly opposed the measure, was also absent, as he was in quarantine after exposure to a coronavirus carrier. Gantz later castigated Likud for forcing the Knesset to devote time to what he called “political games.”

The developments followed a series of investigative reports by Maariv reporter Kalman Libeskind throughout May and June, arguing that various Supreme Court judges had overseen cases in which they appeared to be in conflicts of interest.

Libeskind alleged that justices, including Hayut, Uzi Vogelman, Meni Mazuz and others, removed certain people and issues from the list of their conflicts of interest to oversee cases related to those persons or matters, before later adding them back to the list.

The judges rejected the accusations, saying the issues in question had been struck from the list for valid reasons.

Following those reports, the judiciary decided last month to make public the full list of conflicts of interest for Supreme Court judges.

After that release, the Haaretz daily reported more instances in which the justices officiated in cases where they appeared to be in conflict of interest.

Smotrich and his party then filed a Knesset motion to create a state commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.

A hearing Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 4, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

Though Yamina ended up not joining the coalition, accusing Netanyahu of disregarding it in coalition talks and not offering it sufficient ministerial portfolios, the right-wing party remains supportive of Netanyahu’s push for reforms in the justice system.

Netanyahu and Likud have intensified their rhetoric against the justice system over the past few months as the premier has gone on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies the charges against him, alleging an “attempted coup” involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.

Many on the right have been critical of the top court and issued calls in recent years to rein in its power with Knesset legislation.

The centrist Blue and White party has repeatedly vowed to protect the judiciary, and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said he wouldn’t allow the commission of inquiry to be formed.

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