Israel's Chief Justice Took Lead Role in Case Despite Conflict of Interests

Supreme Court president 'was unaware' of the plaintiffs' identity when she named herself to lead panel, court says, as she recuses herself from the case

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Minister Amir Ohana speak at the inauguration of the Bat Yam Magistrate's Court, February 2, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut named herself to head a High Court of Justice panel, despite being barred from hearing cases brought by one of the plaintiffs due to conflict of interest.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63Haaretz

The panel will hear petitions against a cabinet resolution to establish a committee to examine the conduct of the Justice Ministry unit that investigates allegations of police misconduct. After Haaretz appealed to Hayut, she admitted her fault and recused herself from the panel.

The court’s spokesperson’s office said Hayut was not aware of the of the plaintiffs’ identities when she made the decision, due to a clerical error.

When the petitions against setting up the committee were filed, Hayut used her authority to decide who would head the panel hearing the petition, rather than having the court registrar decide. The other justices, Noam Sohlberg and Menachem Mazuz, were selected by the registrar at random, based on their case load.

Giora Erdinast is the plaintiff whose cases Hayut is barred from hearing.

Hayut appointed her deputy, Justice Hanan Melcer, to head the panel, with the other judges also changing. They will now be Yitzhak Amit and David Mintz.

The examination was set up despite the opposition of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who determined that it should be precluded ahead of an election.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana initiated the committee, following protests by Israelis of Ethiopian descent, at a timing that suggests an attempt to placate this sector before the March 2 election.

A good-government organization and a group of lawyers petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding that it stop the committee’s work.

In the meantime, the committee has invited public comments regarding the Justice Ministry department. It also summoned the head of the department to appear before it. However, it has been decided that the unit’s director will only testify after the general election.

Since Mendelblit expressed his objection to the committee, a private lawyer, Prof. Ron Shapira will, as an exception, represent the government and Ohana in these hearings. In recent years, the attorney general has approved representation by private lawyers in High Court of Justice hearings only in debates about a law regulating amendments to and regulation of the state budget.

The court spokesman’s office said that “due to an administrative error, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut was unaware of the fact that attorney Giora Erdinast was among the plaintiffs. She is prohibited from sitting in cases he is involved in and will thus not participate in a panel hearing this case.”