Independence of Israel's Supreme Court at Stake, Jurists Warn Chief Justice

Judicial appointments Committee is due to meet on Sunday to discuss deal to appoint three new justices.

An emerging deal for the appointment of three new Supreme Court justices threatens to undermine the court's independence, a group of jurists warned Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch this week.

The Judicial Appointments Committee is due to meet on Sunday to discuss the appointments, and it seemed a deal had been reached to promote Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg, who is favored by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and other panel members aligned with him, along with Jerusalem District Court Deputy President Zvi Zylbertal, who is favored by Beinisch and other panel members aligned with her. The third slot was expected to go to Tel Aviv District Court President Dvora Berliner, who is apparently acceptable to both factions.

Dorit Beinisch and Yaakov Neeman - Olivier Fitoussi - 07112011
Olivier Fitoussi

Now, however, Beinisch is expected to request that the decision be postponed to allow time for additional candidates to apply. Inter alia, she is arguing that one of the new justices ought to be mizrahi, meaning of Middle Eastern descent.

The jurists who warned Beinisch against the deal this week argued that appointing Sohlberg now, when he is only 49, grants him more than 20 years on the bench before he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70, and virtually guarantees that he will become Supreme Court president someday, since the presidency is always given to the justice who has served the longest at the time the job falls vacant.

They also argued that Sohlberg should be balanced by a prominent candidate with an outstanding record of fighting for human rights, such as Prof. Daphne Barak-Erez, dean of Tel Aviv University's law school, or Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Finally, they said, Sohlberg's appointment could make it acceptable to appoint people with known political "agendas" to the court, and thereby undermine what they termed its apolitical tradition.

It is still not clear whether the committee will actually choose three new justices on Sunday, especially given the tension between Beinisch and Neeman, engendered by a string of media reports about the emerging deal. Sources on the committee said they now think it likely that the three justices on the panel, led by Beinisch, will agree to postpone the meeting to allow new candidates to be put forward. This would postpone the appointments by at least a month, since by law, the public must be given 30 days to submit objections to a judicial nominee.

The sources said that expanding the candidate list could enable the panel to choose four new justices instead of three, with the fourth replacing Justice Eliezer Rivlin when he retires in May 2012. This might enable Beinisch to secure a better deal - namely, the appointment of a second candidate of her choice in exchange for Sohlberg.