Israel Taps Four New Supreme Court Justices, Shifting Balance of Power to the Right

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked praises moves: 'Today we made history. This evening’s judicial appointments reflect the human and legal diversity so needed in our society, and which until now has been so lacking on our highest court.'

Justices George Karra, Yael Wilner, David Mintz and Yosef Elron .
Tomer Appelbaum, Olivier Fitoussi

In a decision that could shift the balance of power on the Supreme Court, the Judicial Appointments Committee announced the appointment of four new justices on Wednesday – three of whom are considered conservatives.

The four are Jerusalem District Court Judge David Mintz, Haifa District Court President Yosef Elron, Haifa District Court Judge Yael Willner and Tel Aviv District Court Judge George Karra. All will take office over the coming year.

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Of the four, Karra was the only one whose candidacy was backed from the start by the three sitting Supreme Court justices who serve on the nine-member appointments committee. The other three are all considered conservatives, and two, Mintz and Willner, are religious.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who chairs the appointments panel, praised the decision, saying, “Today we made history. This evening’s judicial appointments reflect the human and legal diversity so needed in our society, and which until now has been so lacking on our highest court.”

The Bar Association also welcomed the decision, praising Shaked and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor for reaching a compromise despite their initial deep disagreements.

Naor herself made do with congratulating the new justices and promising to “welcome them all.”

Elron, a Haifa native whose parents immigrated from Morocco, specializes in criminal cases.

“His agenda is very conservative; he doesn’t support [judicial] activism and intervention,” a source involved in the committee said. Another source described him as “an excellent judge” and “not one of those people for whom everything in life came easily.”

Elron’s appointment was at first vehemently opposed by the three justices on the appointments committee, but they apparently relented as part of a package deal to secure Karra’s appointment. In contrast, Elron received strong support from the Bar Association, which controls two seats on the committee, as well as from the cabinet’s two representatives on the panel, Shaked and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Elron’s critics say he has problems with personal relations; several employees left the Haifa District Court during his presidency, and his relations with his predecessor, Bilha Gillor, were poor. Moreover, the sitting justices deemed his legal talent insufficient for the highest court.

But his supporters claim these critics opposed him primarily because “he doesn’t belong to the judges’ milieu.” And he did receive recommendations from several senior officials familiar with his work, including former Haifa district attorney Amit Eisman and the head of the Forensic Medicine Institute, Dr. Chen Kugel. Eisman, for instance, said Elron’s assets included “broad knowledge; excellent, sharp legal ability; clear writing; and a high capability for dealing with complex legal issues.”

Mintz, who was one of Shaked’s preferred candidates, is a British-born resident of the West Bank settlement of Dolev who immigrated to Israel as a child. Aside from being a lawyer, he is also an ordained rabbi.

One controversial case Mintz presided over was a petition by Channel 10 television and its reporter, Raviv Drucker, demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conversations with Sheldon Adelson, owner of the free daily Israel Hayom, and the paper’s editor in chief, Amos Regev, be made public. In July 2016, Mintz ruled that acceding to this request would violate Adelson’s and Regev’s privacy. An appeal of this decision is pending in the Supreme Court.

Mintz also rejected a petition by Haaretz demanding that the Foreign Ministry publish the list of guests invited to a Passover seder hosted by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer in 2014. The Supreme Court later granted Haaretz’s appeal of that decision.

Willner, the third conservative, is, like Mintz, an observant Orthodox Jew. She was a compromise candidate supported by both Shaked and the justices, who were on opposite sides of the fence over many of the nominees. She specializes in civil cases.

Willner interned with former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch when the latter was still serving in the state prosecution, and is considered close to current Justice Isaac Amit, a former colleague on the Haifa District Court. But a source involved in the committee’s work said one person who opposed her candidacy was Justice Esther Hayut, who will become president of the Supreme Court when Naor retires in October.

Karra, a Christian Arab born in Jaffa, specializes in criminal cases. He was the justices’ preferred candidate to replace Salim Joubran, currently the only Arab on the court. Though he was initially opposed by both the Bar Association representatives and the politicians on the committee, under the package deal, he ultimately won out over a fellow Arab judge on the Tel Aviv District Court, Chaled Kabub.

Karra’s most famous case was that of former President Moshe Katsav, whom he convicted of rape and sentenced to seven years in jail.

Former Judge Oded Mudrik, who served with Karra on the Tel Aviv District Court, described him as an intelligent man who gets along very well with others. But critics charge that Karra consistently favors the prosecution over the defense.

“I can remember virtually no acquittals by him; he’s adored by the prosecution,” said one attorney who has appeared before him.