Justice Minister Seeks to Give Cabinet Greater Influence in Choosing Supreme Court Justices

Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann yesterday unveiled his proposal to give the government a greater say on the panel that appoints Supreme Court justices in order to reduce the influence of sitting Supreme Court justices on the appointment process.

Under the terms of his proposed bill, the majority of the panel's members will also be appointed by the government and the Knesset.

Friedmann is planning to meet with coalition and opposition Knesset members over the next few weeks to seek parliamentary backing for the bill.

Friedmann's proposal was sharply criticized by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who warned it would "politicize the procedure by which justices are selected and hurt the judiciary's independence."

Since his appointment by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last February, the justice minister has strongly advocated legislation curbing Supreme Court powers. Beinisch and many former Supreme Court members, including former president Aharon Barak, have spoken out against such legislation.

In a briefing with reporters, Friedmann said his legislation was necessary because the Supreme Court had "changed its nature and is now dealing with political issues and value judgments as well as rescinding Knesset legislation.

"The idea [of the proposal] is to widen the range of opinions choosing judges. The central idea is to democratize the system," he said.

"Power will not be solely vested in the Supreme Court, but will grant a new status to District Court presidents. There is no intent to introduce greater political influence on the system, there will not be a concentration of political power but rather a dissemination of it that will give a wider range" of views.

The justice minister admitted that he intended to increase the importance of the Supreme Court's candidates' "worldviews" during the selection procedure.

"Professor Ruth Gavison was rejected [as a potential Supreme Court justice] because she had an agenda. Was that political or not?" Friedmann asked.

"Worldviews have implications, depending on whether a candidate is closer to this or that party. Politicians' worldviews greater reflect those of the public; a system where judges appoint themselves does not exist anywhere else in the world."

In the upcoming months, the judicial appointments panel will name three justices to permanent positions on the Supreme Court after Friedmann said he would not continue the practice of selecting judges for temporary periods.

He added, however, that he did not intend to delay the appointments in order for his proposed law to take effect and change the panel's makeup. If passed, a clause will be added to the law that would specifically state it come into effect only after the justices are selected, he said.

"The proposed law is not intended to help me," Friedmann said. "Appointments will continue under the current system and if it is okayed, then it will come into effect only after my tenure ends."

In addition to his bid to change the panel's makeup, Friedman introduced two proposals also aimed at curbing the Supreme Court's authority: To form a committee to select Supreme Court presidents and deputy presidents, and to halt temporary appointments of acting Supreme Court justices.

Beinisch lashed out against Friedmann's proposals, claiming they were part of the justice minister's crusade aimed at weakening the judiciary.

"It will weaken the status of the Supreme Court and of its president by undermining the powers vested in it," she said. "They will politicize the justice selection procedure and the independence to pass judgment."

Beinisch added that Friedmann's call to form a committee to select Supreme Court presidents and vice presidents could precipitate political campaigns for the position.

A member of the judges' representation on the panel that selects Supreme Court justices also attacked Friedmann's proposal.

In a letter addressed to the justice minister, Judge Varda Alshech wrote she was astonished to learn that Beinisch and Moshe Gal, the director of the Courts Administration, had not been briefed on the proposal before his announcement.

"We were under the impression that the layout of the law will be agreed upon by you and the Supreme Court president," she wrote. "Now we've learned that this is not the case."

Friedmann's proposal was also criticized by three Labor lawmakers, MKs Ofir Pines-Paz, Orit Noked and Eitan Cabel, as well as the head of the Bar Association. "The day politicians will anoint justices will be the end of Israeli democracy," Pines-Paz said.