Judges From Left to Right

The cries of woe about a right-wing "takeover" of the Supreme Court following the election of MK Uri Ariel (National Union) as the opposition's representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee reflect a serious misunderstanding: The committee, whose members include three Supreme Court justices, two ministers, two MKs and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association, is not a battlefield between right and left, and to present it as if it were is misleading and ignores the facts. Unfortunately, those contributing to this misunderstanding have included Supreme Court justices who served on the committee, as well as other justices who ruled, in response to petitions to the High Court of Justice, that judges should not be appointed in the run-up to a Knesset election.

While political appointments should indeed be prevented in the run-up to an election, judges are not political appointments. This is especially true of judges appointed to magistrate's and district courts, who clearly have almost no connection with sensitive political issues. But because of this ruling, the committee has not convened for over a year.

The panel is finally supposed to convene this week, and its agenda includes some 30 appointments to magistrate's and district courts, as well as three appointments to the Supreme Court, which are arousing particular interest. In light of the shortage of judges on all the courts, which causes serious harm to the public, what is required now are marathon committee sessions.

Judges must be appointed on the basis of their professional abilities, their knowledge of different areas of the law, their efficiency in dealing with the courts' workload and their ability to make decisions. That is true of both the lower courts and the Supreme Court, as long as the latter still serves as an appellate court that rules on over 13,000 cases a year.

The main pool from which Supreme Court justices are chosen is the district court judges. Attorneys with broad practical experience - two of whom, Hanan Melcer and Yoram Danziger, were recently appointed justices - now constitute an important addition to the 10 justices who come from the district courts. An academic could bolster the intellectual aspect of the court's rulings, but would be a worthy appointment only if he or she enjoys broad acceptance by his colleagues, is conversant with various fields of law and is not involved in public battles on controversial issues.

The adoption of professional criteria for the appointment of judges would prevent unnecessary conflicts. Judges should preferably be chosen by broad consensus, without being publicly labeled as "rightist" or "leftist." Even when the four politicians on the committee - ministers Yaakov Neeman and Gilad Erdan and MKs Uri Ariel and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) - are considered rightist, that should have no influence on their considerations.

In any case, they would do well to remember the statement by former U.S. president Harry Truman: "Once I appoint somebody to the Supreme Court, I lose a friend." Justices who serve in such a position usually tend to forget - and rightly so - who contributed to their appointment. That is why we should not waste unnecessary efforts on the battle over appointments.

In July 2008, at the initiative of MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), the Knesset passed a law stating that a Supreme Court justice can be chosen only with the consent of seven of the nine committee members. In practice, this means that new justices cannot be appointed without the consent of at least one of the three Supreme Court justices on the committee - something that will prevent extremely unreasonable appointments.

What is needed now, and urgently, is the appointment of worthy and professional judges who will help strengthen badly-needed public confidence in the judicial system.