Supreme Court president blasts ‘unprecedented assault’ on judicial branch

Esther Hayut denounces bill giving Knesset power to override court veto on laws, warns human rights will be left unprotected; Justice Minister Shaked says critics are overreacting

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin, (C) President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut, (L), and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, (R), at a swearing-in ceremony for new court judges at the President's Residence, Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. (Mark Neeman/President's Office)
President Reuven Rivlin, (C) President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut, (L), and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, (R), at a swearing-in ceremony for new court judges at the President's Residence, Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. (Mark Neeman/President's Office)

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Monday lashed out against a bill that would limit the power of the court to strike down Knesset legislation it deems unconstitutional, calling it an “unprecedented assault” against the judicial branch and warning it would leave basic human rights unprotected.

Hayut delivered her comments during a swearing-in ceremony for new judges at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Also in attendance were President Reuven Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose Jewish Home party is the main proponent of the controversial bill, known as the supercession law.

“The judicial branch is under a brutal and unprecedented attack that poses a realistic threat to its power and independence,” Hayut said. “The significance of the legislation is simple — the elimination of the constitutional protection of human rights that is anchored in Israel by Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and freedom to enact laws that violate those rights without the court being able to provide relief to the victims.”

“Those who hold that the supercession law ‘supercedes’ the court are mistaken,” Hayut continued. “In fact, it supercedes the human rights of every segment of Israeli society, and gives legitimacy to the Knesset, with the support of the government, to enact laws that violate human rights with impunity.”

Ministers on Sunday authorized the bill, which would give a 61-MK majority the ability to overturn Supreme Court decisions to strike down Knesset legislation as unconstitutional.

Hayut warned the law would cause “constitutional chaos” in Israel and hamper efforts to safeguard human rights.

Shaked rejected the warnings, saying those who oppose the law were overly quick to predict the demise of Israel’s democratic nature.

President Reuven Rivlin, sitting center, President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut, sitting left, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, sitting right, together with newly sworn-in court judges at the President’s Residence, Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. (Mark Neeman/President’s Office)

“Every week a voice is heard proclaiming that Israeli democracy is marching toward its end,” she said. “Sometimes because of a government process, and sometimes because of some legislation. Inflation in announcements of the death of democracy has become absurd, especially as a tool for political bullying. I regret to disappoint the eulogists, but go outside and take a look — Israeli democracy is alive and breathing and kicking and stronger than any of its critics and eulogizers.”

Rivlin also spoke in defense of the court’s power, saying that “without protection of minority rights, the deciding majority is simply being autocratic.”

“More than in the past, the claim is raised that the justice system is invading areas that are not its domain, and is imposing a disproportionate restriction on the decisions of the Knesset that is the elected representative of the majority. Indeed, a democratic country has no choice by to rely on the majority decision. But — there is no contradiction between accepting the rules of the game, and foremost the decision by the majority, and stubborn protection of minority rights. The opposite is true.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on Aptil 29, 2018. (Amit Shabi/Flash90)

On Sunday the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a group of ministers that decides the government position on upcoming legislation, voted to give 61 MKs (of the 120 MKs) the ability to overturn a Supreme Court decision to strike down Knesset legislation it deems unconstitutional.

In the short term, it would enable lawmakers to change the law in ways that would allow Israel to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, a step the court has prevented. More generally, the Israeli right has long criticized the High Court for its sweeping powers and sought to make the Knesset more powerful in its stead.

The Sunday committee vote went ahead despite a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone it for a third week in a row.

The bill is now set to face a first reading in the Knesset but the bill appears unlikely to progress due to objections from the coalition’s center-right Kulanu party.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon said Sunday that his party would oppose the bill in the Knesset, claiming that the committee’s decision “breaks the coalition agreement not to pass legislation to damage the rule of law.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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