Lying Under Oath Doesn't Have to Mean You Are Unfit for Office

MK Tzachi Hanegbi's conviction on charges of perjury and swearing falsely brings the question of whether his crime involved moral turpitude to center stage. These offenses bear maximum sentences of seven and three years in jail, respectively.

Under an amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset enacted in March 2007, if an MK is convicted of a crime and the court decides the crime involved moral turpitude, the MK must be suspended immediately, without waiting for the result of an appeal, should one be filed. A court usually decides whether a crime involved moral turpitude as part of the sentencing.

Prior to the adoption of this amendment, the Knesset could exercise its judgment as to whether to suspend an MK before he had exhausted the appeal process. The new language, however, is unequivocal: It leaves the Knesset no room for discretion.

The Basic Law on Government states that someone who is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude and sentenced to actual jail time cannot serve as a cabinet minister within seven years of the day he finishes serving his sentence.

The Basic Law on the Knesset says that such a person cannot run for Knesset within seven years of leaving jail, unless his prison term was shorter than three months, in which case the ban does not apply.

Perjury is a crime that undermines the very foundations of government, and the Supreme Court has lumped it together with offenses such as bribery, fraud and obstructing justice as one that has implications for a person's suitability to hold public office.

Nevertheless, it does not necessarily entail mortal turpitude: Previous Supreme Court rulings have stressed that the question of moral turpitude "always depends on context and circumstances," as Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy put it in a 2008 case. The relevant circumstances include the question of how much time has elapsed since the crime was committed. As former justice Mishael Cheshin wrote in one of his rulings, "Time has the power to ease the sting and weaken the force of the moral turpitude."

'A moral stain'

Courts have traditionally been cautious about determining that a crime entails moral turpitude, because the stigma of such a finding goes far beyond the stigma of the crime itself. As former justice Haim Cohen once wrote, "moral turpitude is a moral stain attesting that the bearer is not fit to be in the company of honest men, and is certainly not fit to bear public responsibility for decisions and acts on which public opinion and the public's welfare depend."

In Hanegbi's case, the crime was apparently committed long ago. Moreover, he was convicted in a split decision, with one of the three judges holding that he should be acquitted. The dissenting judge argued that even if Hanegbi did perjure himself, it was on a minor issue that had no potential to affect the outcome of the trial. Finally, consideration must be given to the fact that he was acquitted of the main charges on which he was tried.

The prosecution is generally not quick to appeal an acquittal unless it views the case as having great public or legal significance. It will make this decision only after studying the verdict, which ran to over 1,000 pages, and after the court has handed down its sentence.

But there is one important decision that it must make even before the sentencing, with guidance from the attorney general: whether to ask the court to rule that Hanegbi's crime involved moral turpitude.