'A revenge campaign against the system that didn't want him'

Justice Elron panned for challenging seniority system for Supreme Court president

Critics say candidacy submission aimed at preventing rival Isaac Amit from assuming role as most veteran justice when current chief Esther Hayut retires

Supreme Court Judge Yosef Elron arrives for a hearing, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, May 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Judge Yosef Elron arrives for a hearing, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, May 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Supreme Court Justice Yosef Elron is facing accusations of trying to “destroy” the court and engaging in a personal vendetta against a rival judge by putting forward his candidacy to become court president in a challenge to the established tradition of giving the role to the most veteran member of the bench.

In an unprecedented move Wednesday, Elron submitted his candidacy to take over from retiring Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, a move critics said was aimed at preventing Judge Isaac Amit from inheriting the position under the customary — but not legislated — seniority method.

Elron’s request to be a candidate, sent in a letter to Hayut and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, came amid the hardline minister’s efforts to institute a new system for naming the president of the Supreme Court, as part of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul bid. The Supreme Court presidency is a powerful post that wields major influence on key matters regarding the composition of court benches and other issues.

In addition, Levin wants to remake the Judicial Selection Committee to give the government control over the panel that selects judges. One of the people who sits on the committee is the Supreme Court president.

By submitting his candidacy, Elron was seen as already altering the existing system, and if selected, the conservative judge would be a possible ally to Levin on the selection committee. In the committee’s current composition, Elron is seen to have little to no chance of being chosen as president, but his candidacy is likely to be cited by overhaul advocates as ostensible evidence of the need to remake the judicial selection process.

Elron reportedly confirmed that he was spurred to action because of Amit’s looming ascension to the Supreme Court presidency, but adamantly denied that he was allied with Levin, telling close acquaintances: “My announcement was not coordinated with the justice minister.”

“If we weren’t talking about Isaac Amit, I would not have put forward my candidacy,” Elron was quoted as saying in a Channel 12 report.

Both Elron and Amit were judges in the Haifa District Court, where they reportedly developed a rivalry. Amit was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009, and Hebrew media outlets cited judicial figures as suggesting Elron was out for revenge on Amit for initially opposing his own 2017 appointment to the top bench.

Supreme Court Judge Isaac Amit at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Judicial Selection Committee approved Elron’s move to the Supreme Court as part of an agreement among its members to appoint four new judges seen as more conservative and with a non-activist legal worldview, putting a large dent in what is seen as a liberal-dominated bench.

Several of the incumbent court justices were said to have opposed Elron’s selection. However, he had the backing on the Judicial Selection Committee of then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked and then-finance minister Moshe Kahlon, as well as the Israel Bar Association.

Elron’s background was also seen as playing a factor in his appointment. As the son of Iraqi immigrants, Elron is Mizrahi while the Supreme Court has faced accusations of being dominated by Ashkenazi Israelis, those descended from European Jews. At the time, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper published leaks of internal Supreme Court discussions during which Elron was described as “not being made of the stuff for the Supreme [Court].”

A senior source in the judicial system, in remarks to Channel 13, accused Elron of being “on a revenge campaign against the system that didn’t want him in the Supreme Court.”

The source added that Elron “is trying to destroy the court.”

“It is not a surprise and we expected this step,” the source said. “His candidacy is an embarrassment and a disgrace. There is no limit to the audacity. Seniority has tremendous importance to the court.”

The Ynet outlet also cited an unnamed senior judicial source as saying that Elron was “seriously damaging” the Supreme Court and had abandoned his peers as they face the government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary that opponents say will harm its independence and remove checks on executive power.

Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut presides over a court over the Homesh illegal West Bank outpost, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In the midst of a campaign for the independence of the judiciary, a campaign that is entirely political, Elron turned his back on his friends and inserted himself as a Trojan horse into the Supreme Court,” the source said.

Without naming sources, Ynet cited Elron as telling confidants that the seniority system needs to be abolished and that the court president should be chosen based on achievement and ability.

The Kan public broadcaster reported, also without sourcing, that Elron at first suggested to Supreme Court Judge Noam Sohlberg — also a conservative — that he put himself up as a candidate to prevent Amit from getting the job. However, Sohlberg declined, prompting Elron to submit his own candidacy.

The report said Elron does not see Amit as suitable for the role of president due to his lack of administrative experience. Elron further believes the Supreme Court has “lost its way” and “is going from bad to worse” constitutionally, and on matters of crime, it said.

Until now, every president of the Supreme Court has been appointed through the seniority system, and no other justices have ever even submitted their names to the Judicial Selection Committee for the position.

Amit is next in line to become president after Hayut leaves the position on October 16, upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. Elron turns 68 in September; Amit will be 65 in October.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (R) at the Knesset on June 7, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Following Elron’s request, Hayut decided to remove Elron from the High Court panel set to hear petitions against Justice Minister Levin’s refusal to convene the Judicial Selection Committee.

Levin has so far refused to convene the panel as he seeks legislative changes to give the government greater control over judicial appointments.

If the committee does not convene to appoint a judge as president before Hayut bows out in October, her powers will automatically transfer to Justice Uzi Vogelman, who is the court’s vice president.

While Vogelman is still not viewed as the ideal candidate by the coalition, Haaretz reported in May that he plans to retire in about a year, enough time for legislators backing Levin to push through the changes.

Though no longer on the panel that will review petitions to convene the selection committee, Elron is still on another panel of judges that will review petitions against recent legislation that removed from the courts the power to strike down government decisions by using the yardstick of “reasonableness.”

Israel’s highest court has 15 members, though only some of the judges are assigned to each case. The bench for the “reasonableness” petitions, unprecedentedly, will comprise all 15 justices.

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