Unequal Judges

The Tel Aviv District Court has 49 presiding judges. In the last year eight of them were promoted to vice-presidential positions in the District Court, so altogether there are 12 vice-presidents in Tel Aviv.

Yes, a quarter of Tel Aviv's District Court judges are vice-presidents.

Naturally, all were given tasks to keep them busy enough to warrant the title. For instance, VP Edna Kaplan-Hagler is kept busy with hosting duties, and lecturing to students. VP Ze'ev Hammer is responsible for making the court secretariat more efficient, while VP Drora Pilpel handles the social rights of interns.

We need not note that being a vice-president involves not only hard work but also economic benefits. A judge promoted to VP gets a raise in salary, and as all are veteran judges with non-contributory pensions (meaning they don't make provisions into a pension fund; the state foots the bill in its entirety), the entire raise is rolled over into higher stipends by the state when they retire.

The prestige aside, being promoted to VP is a lucrative deal, which may explain the terrific political pressures that the judges exert to gain the promotion. Their pressures seem to work: instead of disappointing some of the judges by turning them down, the court management simply chose to promote them all and that was that.

It was a very convenient choice from the judges' perspective, especially when they aren't paying for the convenience. The citizens of Israel are, because their taxes finance the judicial budget and the promotion of judges to wholly superfluous positions,  just because the justice system can't cop with the internal pressures.

The public holds Israel's justice system in extremely high regard. It is one of the last areas in government that remains non-controversial and that esteem for its functioning and professionalism crosses boundaries. Therefore, the question of its budget isn't often raised for public debate, nor are the extra perks that the Israeli legislator has awarded to the judges, ostensibly to protect their independence and prestige. That is, until the perks cross the boundaries of good taste.

The judges fight for more than the right to be promoted to vice-presidential positions. In recent months they've also taken up arms to fight to get higher pension payments.

A representative of the judges submitted a request to a special Knesset panel, which is the only body empowered to discuss their employment terms, again in the name of protecting their independence. They want higher pensions for new judges, meaning ones appointed to the bench after 1999, which is when the entire public sector lost the right to non-contributory pensions and had to adopt cumulative ones, into which the employer (the state) and they themselves have to pay each month.

Indeed, the transition from non-contributory pensions to cumulative ones did worsen the pension terms of the judges, and of all other civil servants too, including career soldiers and policemen. But unlike the other civil servants, the judges demand that the stat compensate them for the impairment and make up the difference.

They also demand that the difference be paid to judges who retire at 60, not only the ones retiring at 70. The judges' representative calculated that the difference would double pension payments for judges retiring at 60, from NIS 6,000 a month to about NIS 13,000. Judges retiring at 70 would get NIS 20,000 a month instead of NIS 15,000.

Their argument is that it isn't dignified to retire at the age of 60 on NIS 6,000 a month. Under terms like that, good lawyers would scorn the bench and the system would become mediocre.

It isn't dignified, but that's because judges join the bench at a relatively advanced age and have little opportunity to make deposits into pension funds. In cumulative funds, you get what you pay in and therefore, if you don't pay in enough, you won't get much.

That is true of all workers in Israel, and in the case of judges there already is a compensatory mechanism in place - they surely started saving for old age before joining the bench. And after retirement they can work as arbitrators, augmenting their pension nicely. Most important, as judges, they earn a great deal of money.

According to the Finance Ministry, a Magistrates Court judge earns NIS 39,000 a month, a District Court grosses NIS 49,000 a month and a Supreme Court justice earns NIS 61,000 a month. That is the highest average in the public sector.

Moreover, they are held in high esteem as representatives of law and order, free of bias and narrow interests. That is their main asset, more than pay or pensions, and it derives from the public's faith in them. That faith will die if the judges turn themselves into just another guild out to grab whatever economic benefits they can, to which other citizens are not entitled, and advance their interests at the expense of contempt for the public's money.