Supreme Court
Supreme Court. Photo by Emil Salman
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More than a few judges behave as if they're here to represent God on earth, former Supreme Court justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen charged recently.

Such criticism is exceptional, as it comes from someone at the very heart of the judicial establishment: Strasberg-Cohen spent 25 years as a judge, first in the lower courts and later on the Supreme Court; upon her retirement she became Israel's first judicial ombudsman, a post she held from 2003 to 2008. In the latter capacity, she handled thousands of complaints filed by citizens against judges.

Strasberg-Cohen's remarks were made during a meeting last month of a professional committee she chairs, whose goal is to promote civil discourse in the courtroom. Haaretz obtained a copy of the minutes.

The committee, comprised of senior judges and attorneys, was established by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Israel Bar Association chairman Yori Geiron. Its mandate is to examine how judges and lawyers speak and act in court, and to propose ways of improving their behavior.

At last month's session, whose main speaker was the current judicial ombudsman and former Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg, an argument developed over judges who arrive late to hearings.

Strasberg-Cohen opened by saying that some judges show no respect for either lawyers or litigants: They show up late for hearings - sometimes more than an hour late - without notifying either the lawyers or the parties involved in the case, she said, thus forcing them to waste large amounts of time twiddling their thumbs in an empty courtroom. Following that, she charged, the judges rarely bother explaining or apologizing for the delay. In short, she said, the judge behaves "as if he were God's agent."

Goldberg then hastened to the judges' defense, asserting that very few judges are guilty of such behavior. But Strasberg-Cohen retorted that this was not merely a case of a few bad apples.

When queried by Haaretz last week, Strasberg-Cohen said she would not have phrased her comments in that way in writing.

"When you're talking, sometimes you explain things in a more dramatic fashion," she said. "It's a metaphor. I was referring to a judge who comes three quarters of an hour late, enters the courtroom as if it were understood that he can come whenever he pleases and doesn't even see fit to apologize or explain."

She also stressed that the figure of 10 percent was not based on any data. It was merely a "random number that slipped out," she said. "I also said at the meeting that I hadn't done the statistics on how many judges come late to hearings."

Strasberg-Cohen also denied an argument had broken out between the two of them, saying the entire meeting had been conducted in a "relaxed atmosphere, a good spirit of mutual respect."

The Courts Administration said in response it is unaware of any widespread incidence of judges showing up late for hearings, but should the committee reach such a conclusion its findings would be addressed.