In Surprise Announcement, Supreme Court Justice Zvi Zylbertal Says He's Retiring

Zylbertal's early departure means four justices will leave the court next year and Justice Minister Shaked will play a key role in naming a quarter of the High Court's bench.

Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer
Israeli Supreme Court Justice Zvi Zylbertal
Israeli Supreme Court Justice Zvi ZylbertalCredit: Courts
Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer

Supreme Court Justice Zvi Zylbertal announced on Thursday that he intends to retire in April 2017 rather than serve out his full term until 2022.

He joins three other justices in retiring next year as they reach retirement age. Their departures will make Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked a key figure in the appointment of a quarter of the Supreme Court's justices. She has recently said she intends to try to change the court’s composition and make it more conservative.

Joining Zybertal in stepping down from the court next year are Elyakim Rubinstein, Salim Joubran and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor.

Zylbertal has been a member of the bench for four years and is not known for any well-formed ideology. According to knowledgeable sources, he has decided to retire because he feels a sense of completion. He has informed Court President Miram Naor and Shaked, both of whom have expressed their regret at his early retirement.

In an interview with Haaretz last month, Shaked said that in her opinion, there is an imbalance between liberal and conservative justices and tha she thought the court was too liberal.

“The constitutional revolution went too far” she said.

“Over the years, the court has taken on additional authority it was not supposed to possess. The separation among government branches has become blurred.”

In an interview with Channel 2 television, Shaked was even more explicit, saying she intends to try to change the court’s composition so that it becomes more conservative.

“I believe we need more conservative judges and if I’m the justice minister in 2017, I will want more conservative judges to be appointed.”

The committee that appoints judges has nine members, and a majority of seven is required in the selection of high court justices. The government is represented by Shaked and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Two Knesset members, Nurit Koren (Likud) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu), also serve on the committee.

The Supreme Court is represented by Justices Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein and Salim Joubran. Two Israel Bar Association representatives also sit on the panel. The decision on new appointments is expected to come early next year, but the search process begins now.

Zylbertal’s appointment was spearheaded by the president of the Supreme Court at the time, Dorit Beinisch, who was on the appointments committee. Zylbertal was perceived as a counterweight to Justice Noam Sohlberg, who aroused fierce opposition in left-wing circles, as he is a religious judge closely identified with the right wing and the settlements. Sohlberg lives in Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc of the West Bank.

Zylbertal, who was prominent in civil legal matters, was perceived as a representative of the judicial activism school. In the early 1980s, he was a clerk to Justice Aharon Barak, who led a constitutional revolution.

IZylbertal did not get to rule on many significant cases. But he did serve on panels that decided some prominent criminal cases. He believed, along with Justice Isaac Amit, and contrary to Justice Yoram Danziger, that Roman Zadorov, accused in the high-profile murder of pupil Tair Rada at a Golan Heights school, was rightly convicted.

He was one of a panel of five judges that partially acquitted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Holyland trial, and was also on the panel that heard Olmert’s appeal in the Talansky case, involving alleged cash payments.

In January, Zylbertal denied an appeal by Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto against his conviction for bribing the former commander of the police fraud unit, Efraim Bracha. He recently increased the sentences of two activists from the extreme right-wing Lehava group for torching a bilingual Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem.

In his ruling, Zylbertal said: “The sentence rendered by the district court does not fully reflect the severity of the [defendants'] actions. They directly damaged the school, the confidence of its pupils and its teachers, and indirectly [damaged] the public’s sense of security and its efforts to try to live peacefully in areas that are already fraught with tension.”

Jurists say his rulings on petitions for the High Court of Justice have not reflected any particular agenda. There has been a hint of criticism, however, on the part of colleagues over his decisions on petitions relating to the demolition of terrorists’ homes. Zilbertal ruled for rejecting a petition by families of two assailants against such demolitions, in contrast to an opposing opinion by Justice Menachem Mazuz.

“Justice Mazuz’s considerations are weighty, based on constitutional principles, as well as on justice and basic decency. If these issues were presented to this court for the first time, I might have joined most of his positions” wrote Zylbertal.

“Deviation from accepted rulings should be made with caution, after time has passed since they were made, and any changes should be made by an expanded court panel, when the reasons for changing a previous ruling outweigh considerations for continuing to abide by it," he wrote.

Zylbertal was part of a five-judge panel that rejected a petition to cancel the appointment of Avichai Mandelblit as attorney general. He also took part in a panel which heard a third appeal challenging the “infiltration” law, which set policy regarding asylum seekers. In that case, he joined the majority and struck down the clause allowing the incarceration of foreign migrants at the Holot detention facility for as long as 20 months.

“The state is allowed to regulate where these infiltrators reside, in order to assist the residents of southern Tel Aviv," he wrote, referring to an area of Tel Aviv where a large number of asylum seekers live. "But it can’t do so while trampling on their dignity.” He then added a quote from Leviticus, enjoining Israel to treat the stranger among us well, since we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt.

Zylbertal studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was named as a Jerusalem magistrate's judge in 1990. In 2001 he was appointed to the Jerusalem District Court. At this retirement he will have served 27 years on the bench.

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