The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz could ultimately lead to a shift in the court’s orientation from its current liberal-leaning majority to a conservative one.
Mazuz, who is 65, announced Monday that he will be taking early retirement in April. He is one of 15 justices on the Supreme Court and among seven justices seen as liberal who are due to retire in the next three years.
With the possibility of another Knesset election in the first half of next year, if Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn doesn’t manage to convene the judicial appointments committee to replace Mazuz and another justice, Hanan Melcer, before the Knesset is dissolved, his successor as justice minister who be given the task. If the next Israeli government lasts for three years, its representatives on the appointments committee, which also includes Supreme Court justices, Knesset members and representatives of the Israel Bar Association, would play a role in naming seven new justices to the bench.
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In addition to Mazuz, Melcer is also stepping down in April. A year later Neal Hendel is due to retire, followed by George Karra. In October 2023, Anat Baron and the court’s president, Esther Hayut, will retire as well. Justice Uzi Vogelman is due to retire in 2024. All are considered liberal.
If Nissenkorn, who as justice minister chairs the appointments committee, fails to convene it to fill the imminent vacancies, a subsequent appointment of three conservative justices would be sufficient to shift the balance on the court. The new justices would take their seats alongside four conservative-leaning justices – Yosef Elron, David Mintz, Yael Willner and Alex Stein – whose nominations were advanced by Nissenkorn’s predecessor, Ayelet Shaked. Justice Noam Sohlberg, who is also considered conservative, is due to become the court president in 2028.
If this scenario plays out, Israel would have eight conservative-leaning justices out of 15. A conservative majority might revisit core issues, particularly in the field of constitutional law.
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The Tunisian-born son of a rabbi, Mazuz was raised in a transit camp in Netivot. He is viewed as the court’s most liberal justice by virtue of a number of rulings that angered the right wing.
He adamantly opposed the policy of demolishing homes of terrorists due to its implications on others living there, and he reversed two demolition orders within the past six months. One of those cases involved the demolition of the home of Nizmi Abu Bakr, the Palestinian accused of killing Israeli soldier Amit Ben-Ygal by throwing a large block on him from the roof of a building in the West Bank.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit criticized the ruling and asked that the case be reheard. The request was denied out of hand by the court’s president, Hayut, but in her decision, she criticized Mazuz saying, “it would have been possible and appropriate to have reached a different result.”
An expanded court panel rejected petitions challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right to form the current government due to pending criminal charges against him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Leading legal experts expected the decision but were surprised that it was unanimous.
“The result in which 11 justices unanimously denied the petitions surprised us,” a lawyer who filed one of the petitions said. “We thought that at least one justice would have a minority opinion, a lone voice on the court, but Meni Mazuz’s voice wasn’t forthcoming,” the lawyer said, referring to the justice by his nickname. “He joined the majority opinion.”
Mazuz, who was himself Israel’s attorney general, sufficed by saying that a situation in which a prime minister is under indictment “reflects a social crisis and moral failure on the part of society and the political system in Israel. But the court cannot replace the role of the public and the political system in the face of such a reality.”
Prof. Yuval Elbashan, who until recently was the dean of the law school at the Ono Academic College, said image and reality when it comes to Mazuz aren’t always the same. “Mazuz has been characterized by his statesmanlike manner,” Elbashan said of his rulings. but “contrary to his public image, he has been relatively cautious and has taken measured steps.”