Israel's Supreme Court Rejects Minister's Plan to Expand Bench

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked had proposed move in bid to resolve deadlock over judicial appointments, ease court's workload; it would have given her more sway over court’s composition.

Sharon Pulwer
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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, November 13, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Sharon Pulwer

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked recently proposed adding one or two more justices to the Supreme Court’s current bench of 15, but the idea was dropped after the justices themselves opposed it.

One source involved in the discussions said Shaked spoke with Supreme Court President Miriam Naor and suggested expanding the court to 16 or 17 justices. This was meant to ease the court’s heavy workload and as a way of resolving the current deadlock on the Judicial Appointments Committee.

The panel is trying to fill four Supreme Court vacancies that will arise next year. So far, it has been unable to reach agreement.

Shaked’s idea was that appointing another justice or two could create a deal that would satisfy both factions on the committee. Also, it would have given Shaked – who chairs the committee – more power to influence the court’s composition.

But Naor and the other justices replied that the court doesn’t need to be expanded, and that doing so would undermine its stature, the source said.

Data from the Courts Administration show that almost 4,000 new cases reached the Supreme Court last year and more than 4,000 cases were concluded, leaving some 3,300 cases still open at the beginning of 2016. The data also show that, on average, it takes the court nine months to finish hearing petitions to the High Court of Justice; almost a year to finish hearing criminal appeals; about 15 months to finish with civil appeals; and about 18 months to conclude appeals of administrative court decisions.

Sources familiar with Justice Zvi Zylbertal’s thinking said that one of the reasons he decided to retire next year, five years before he reaches the mandatory retirement age, is because of the court’s heavy workload. But the Courts Administration’s official announcement of his decision merely said he was resigning for “personal reasons.”

Last week, informal talks resumed between Shaked and the three justices on the Judicial Appointments Committee – Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein and Salim Joubran – in an effort to reach agreement on filling the four vacancies. Naor had broken off the talks the previous week, after Shaked appeared to be backing a bill that would eliminate the justices’ veto power over Supreme Court appointments by reducing the numbers needed to approve such appointments from seven to five members of the nine-member panel.

Naor agreed to resume the talks after Shaked explained that she only intends to back the bill, sponsored by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu), if the committee proves unable to appoint a replacement for Zylbertal by the time he leaves the Supreme Court bench.

Also last week, Shaked published a list of the 28 candidates being considered for the four vacancies. Most of the candidates are district court judges, but the list also includes five candidates from academia; one civil servant; Official Receiver Prof. David Hahn; and a private-sector lawyer, Asaf Posner.

The Courts Administration declined to comment for this story, beyond saying that no concrete proposal to increase the size of the court is on the agenda. As of press time, Shaked had not responded to a request for comment.

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