Judges Want Publication of Complaints Against Them Banned - Until Proven

Media reports of complaints are like 'being stoned in town square' says judges' rep.

An organization representing the country's judges is seeking to have a law passed that would bar publication of the fact that a complaint is filed with the judicial ombudsman against a particular judge. If the complaint is ultimately found to be justified, it would be reported in the ombudsman's annual report but without mentioning the judge's name, according to the proposal.

The proposed change was presented on Wednesday to the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee by the head of the group representing Israel's judges, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Varda Alshech. She told the committee that currently when complaints about judicial conduct are covered by the press, the judges themselves cannot properly react. "They are demanding that we be stoned in the town square," she said, "and that we not respond."

The judicial ombudsman's office, which is headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, receives between 850 and 1,000 complaints a year against judges. Most are submitted by members of the public, although they have also been filed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and by the court administrator, Judge Moshe Gal. In a report from April which summarized his office's activity in 2010, Goldberg's office stated that of 866 complaints filed against judges that year, only 116 were found to be justified. Goldberg is seeking to have the law amended so he can initiate investigations even if no complaint has been filed. He is also seeking authority to investigate conduct before a judge was appointed to the bench.

An alternative to Alshech's proposal was put forward by Alshech's colleague from the Tel Aviv District Court, Judge Michal Rubinstein, who suggested that judges be afforded a hearing on publicizing the filing of a complaint if the ombudsman seeks to publicize the complaint before a ruling is made on its merits.

The proposal by the judicial group follows news coverage of less than optimal performance on the part of some of the country's judges, including allegations of delays in handing down rulings and improper decisions and other deficient conduct. Alshech posed the question of how judges are currently to respond when a complaint is filed with the ombudsman that gets media coverage but is later founded to be without foundation.

Knesset Constitution Committee Chairman David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ) suggested that the law be amended to provide that if a complainant's allegations against a judge are given to the media before they are filed by the ombudsman, Goldberg's office would not deal with the complaint when it is filed. Goldberg, however, took issue with the suggestion, saying nothing would be gained if the complaint was in fact justified and the judge should be dismissed for his conduct.

In 2010, of the complaints deemed justified, 43 percent related to the extended duration and delay in rendering rulings in cases. About 32 percent of the complaints that were deemed well-founded concerned the conduct of family court judges and another 37 percent related to magistrate's court judges.

Alshech noted that the current judicial ombudsman's law does not set criteria for how judges are to conduct themselves. "Is the intention that he embezzled on the job, that he committed a certain act, or that while he was doing national service, he filched a watermelon from a field?" she asked, adding: "They asked the ombudsman once if a judge could go around in shorts or come to court on a vacation day wearing sport shoes."

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