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Supreme Court chief slams plan to ‘penalize’ lenient judges

Naor warns of threat to democracy over Erdan plan to stall promotion of judges who give lax sentences to rock throwers

Protesters throwing rocks towards Israeli Border Policemen at the entrance to Kafr Kanna on November 9, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Protesters throwing rocks towards Israeli Border Policemen at the entrance to Kafr Kanna on November 9, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

The president of Israel’s highest court on Sunday warned against a reported plan by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to stall the promotion of judges who issue lenient sentences to convicted stone throwers.

Responding to a report on Channel 2 television, Chief Justice Miriam Naor said that “the comments attributed to Erdan befit countries to which we would not like to be compared, and not to our country, as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Writing on Facebook, the public security minister said his initiative was fueled by complaints from police officers who said that the rocks can be an instrument of murder. The existing law mandates 10-15 years in prison and Israel’s security forces, the police and the Shin Bet security service, are making their utmost effort to catch perpetrators. The justice system – in his view – remains the weak link in the chain.

Maor said that the purported remarks by Erdan “contradict the principle of personal independence of a judge, which is a central component of any democratic regime. They contradict the principle established by Basic Law: Sentencing, which says those with the power to issue a judicial ruling should be beholden to the law and nothing else. If a particular verdict is too lenient in the eyes of the executive authority, the proper course of action is to appeal.”

It is extremely rare for presiding justices to voice their views outside the halls of the court. Traditionally, Israeli judges and justices avoid speaking to the media or giving interviews while in office.

Supreme Court President Justice Miriam Naor seen at the first meeting of the Israeli Judicial Selection Committee at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem on August 9, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Supreme Court President Justice Miriam Naor seen at the first meeting of the Israeli Judicial Selection Committee at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem on August 9, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Naor avoided saying whether she shares the view that verdicts against stone-throwers are lenient, but protested “the attempt to issue a warning to judges saying that if they don’t rule as the executive authority believes they should, they will not be promoted. The judges of Israel will continue to do their job truthfully.”

The Israel Bar Association has asked Erdan to drop his initiative. The head of the association, Effi Naveh, said that if the government wants harsher sentences, it should work to legislate harsher laws in the Knesset.

“If the legislator believes verdicts should be harsher, then they should change the law and the minimum penalty it mandates, and then the justice system and the judges will rule according to the law. We respect the public security minister’s wish to restore order and return personal security to the citizens of the state, but believe this should be done by appropriate legislation and not by punishing judges,” Naveh said, according to Channel 2.

Erdan said he would bring the matter to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked after the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) holiday. Shaked also serves as head of the committee that decides on the promotion of judges.

Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, July 31, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 31, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his meeting with Shaked, Erdan is expected to present her with verdicts from the past three years, in which stone throwers, both minors and adults, were given conditional prison terms or community service. The harshest penalties are between four and eight months in prison, and they were given to repeat offenders.

Erdan said toddler Adele Biton, who died on February 17, passed away as a result of injuries that began when she was hit by a rock thrown by a Palestinian in March 2013.

“She was murdered by a rock. So it cannot be that terrorists who throw rocks receive conditional sentences or only a few months just because by happenstance someone didn’t die,” he said.

Former justice minister and senior Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni also criticized Erdan’s plan. “Separation of powers and the supremacy of the court system in a democracy mean that one cannot threaten judges over their promotions based on their verdicts,” she said. “There is a red line between making punishments severe, like the law against stone throwers that I initiated, and politicians threatening judges for their rulings.”

Weighing in to the debate, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement Sunday that, “the way to deal legally with stone throwers and those who throw Molotov cocktails is administrative detention until the end of proceedings, legislating minimal penalties and enforcing them. This is the most immediate and efficient way the government and the Knesset can deal with the problem and strengthen enforcement of the law against those who violate it.”

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