Controversial Bill on Selecting Justices Approved at Stormy Committee Meeting

New proposal imposes no conditions on nature of the bar association representatives, but requires they be elected by a two-thirds majority.

A bill affecting the composition of the panel that appoints the country's judges is expected to have its first reading in the Knesset on Monday. A bill normally requires three readings, and the governing coalition attempted to pass legislation to expedite the bill but failed. It will not be passed by the time the Israel Bar Association selects its representatives for the committee next Tuesday.

The sponsors of the bill, led by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu ), made substantial changes to the proposed law once it became clear their earlier draft ran counter to the Basic Law on the Judiciary, which serves as the equivalent of a constitutional provision.

khenin - Olivier Fitoussi - November 17 2011
Olivier Fitoussi

The bill initially provided that one of the bar association's representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee would be from the association's governing leadership and the other would come from the opposition. The basic law, however, requires a free vote without the imposition of further conditions. The new proposal, which was approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee yesterday, imposes no conditions on nature of the bar association representatives, but requires they be elected by a two-thirds majority. Sponsors of the bill said the two-thirds requirement would make the factions of the Israel Bar Association compromise on the two candidates.

Yesterday's Constitution Committee hearing was particularly stormy and vitriolic. "We want to fundamentally change the Supreme Court and to get it away from the control of the leftist radical elite that is controlling it and return it to the people," said one of the bill's sponsors, Yariv Levin (Likud ). Levin, who initially chaired the meeting, and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ) who later took over, repeatedly removed furious opposition MKs from the hearing room. At one point, Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On called Rotem "vulgar," to which he replied: "Get out of here. You're not even a beast."

In the commotion, many committee members had trouble following changes to the text of the bill, but an impatient Rotem refused to have it read in full again.

For his part, MK Isaac Herzog (Labor ), who opposes the law, said the new formulation would make it more difficult for women to be chosen to represent the bar association on the Judicial Appointments Committee. The initial bill was seen as an effort to change the balance on the selection committee and strengthen the candidacy of Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg for the High Court.

Yesterday, Justice Minister Neeman told the full Knesset that he welcomed the changes to the bill. He also made reference to another bill that passed its first reading in the Knesset this week and would pave the way for Justice Asher Grunis to become the Supreme Court president when the current president, Dorit Beinisch, retires in February. The law dispenses with the requirement that the court president have three years to serve in the post before the mandatory retirement age of 70. Grunis would be just short of the three years.

Neeman told the Knesset the proposal should not be seen as tailored for Grunis. The three-year requirement was inappropriate and should also be scrapped in the lower courts, he said.