Israel’s Judicial Ethics Committee ruled Tuesday to bar a Tel Aviv district court judge from speaking at a human rights conference sponsored by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut had ordered the judge, Michal Agmon-Gonen, to seek the committee’s approval to speak at the conference after right-wing activists alleged that the civil rights group was an extremist left-wing organization hosting a political conference.
In its decision, the ethics committee headed by Supreme Court Justice Uzi Vogelman stated that the decision was due to the fact that ACRI files a large amount of court litigation, therefore requiring caution to avoid conflicts of interest. In addition, the committee decision states that the gathering is not strictly a legal conference but also a celebration of ACRI’s 50th anniversary, with the first day of the conference being devoted to its achievements over the years rather than legal issues.
Expected to convene next month, the conference is meant to focus on “thoughts, insights and dilemmas in advancing human rights. Judge Agmon-Gonen was invited to speak at the opening session, which is on “social rights and social justice.”
According to right-wing activists who pressed Supreme Court President Hayut on the issue, the district court judge’s agreement to participate in the ACRI conference violates judicial ethics rules prohibiting participation in an event organized by a political entity.
One of those who complained was Shai Glick, the director of B’Tzalmo, which describes itself as engaging in human rights “in a Jewish spirit.”
“There is no doubt that this involves crossing a line,” he wrote. “[ACRI] is a controversial deeply public organization that is politically identified with the most extreme side of Israeli society, which defends terrorists and refuses to defend Jews in many instances for political reasons.”
ACRI said in response what it called “the attempt to slam the Association for Civil Rights in Israel with the argument that it is a controversial political organization was rejected by the ethics committee. At the same time, we express regret over the decision to bar Judge Agmon-Gonen from participating in the conference due to the fact that [ACRI] is frequently a court litigant, and we invite the public to attend the conference and to take part in the various session dealing with human rights.”
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The ethics committee noted that the decision to bar Judge Agmon-Gonen’s participation is based on its unique circumstances. “One of the panels at the conference deals with a pending [Knesset] bill and it would be better for judges to refrain from participating in dealing with subjects related to developing specific legal policy or that might be publicly controversial that are not in the context of their judicial role,” the committee stated.
The committee also addressed the fact that court presidents, including retired ones, attended an ACRI conference in 2001, but it noted that “the precise nature of this conference was not brought before the committee, and therefore it’s not possible to draw an analogy with the current issue.”