Pressure Mounts to Delay Selection of High Court Judges

The Basic Law requires that bar association representatives be chosen by the association's national council.

Pressure is mounting to postpone the November 20 meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which is scheduled to select three judges to serve on the Supreme Court, as committee members and academics seek to add a Mizrahi candidate and right-wingers seek to appoint judges thought to represent their views.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided Sunday that the coalition will support a bill stating that the head of the Israel Bar Association should be one of the bar's two representatives on the appointments committee, even though Justice Ministry officials said the bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu, is unconstitutional because it contravenes the Basic Law on the Judiciary.

Dorit Beinisch and Yaakov Neeman - Olivier Fitoussi - 07112011
Olivier Fitoussi

The Basic Law requires that bar association representatives be chosen by the association's national council.

If passed, the law would change the balance of power on the Judicial Appointments Committee. The race is now on to get the law passed by November 22, when the bar association is supposed to choose representatives to sit on the appointments committee. It appears to be intended to pave the way for Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg, who has the support of right-wing politicians, to sit on the Supreme Court.

"This is a first step toward changing the selection process, a step that will lead to a court with a range of opinions, in which religious justices and justices of Mizrahi and Russian origins will serve - not just justices from the left-wing elite of the Rehavia neighborhood [of Jerusalem]," said MK Yariv Levin of Likud.

An appointments committee member said in the last few days that, in addition to Sohlberg, another judge affiliated with right-wingers could be selected if the nominee list is reopened. The current nominee list includes two judges who fit a stereotypical right-wing profile, in that they are religious Zionists who live in the West Bank: Tel Aviv District Court Judge Issaiyho Schneller and Dov Frimer, an adjunct law professor.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman tipped the vote in favor of the bill on Sunday, despite his ministry's opposition to it. He said slight changes to the bill could make it conform with the Basic Law on the Judiciary.

Kadima leader and opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop "the ongoing damage to the systems of law and justice on the part of members of his party and his coalition."

Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich also came out against the bill, saying it would "create tremendous dependence between the judges who are appointed and the politicians who do the appointing."

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon said his Atzmaut party will ask Netanyahu for permission to vote against the bill. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) called on Netanyahu to intervene and prevent "the politicization of the justice system."

Israel Bar Association officials also criticized the bill in its current form, saying it should go into effect only after the next bar association election, so that voters know they will be selecting not only the chairman of the Israel bar but also one of its representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee.

One argument for postponing the appointments committee meeting is that it will enable the lawyers' representatives to take part in selecting Supreme Court nominees.

Bar association members are considering petitioning the High Court of Justice against Neeman's rejection last week of a request by Rachel Ben Ari, one of the two bar association representatives on the appointments committee, who said it was unethical to select Supreme Court judges two days before the bar association was due to choose representatives to serve on the committee for the next three years.

Meanwhile, members of the appointments committee have been seeking to reopen the nominee list in the hope of recruiting Mizrahi judges. In recent days, a group of academics and intellectuals - including Yossi Yonah, an expert on the philosophy of education; and sociology professor Yehouda Shenhav - sent the appointments committee a petition calling for Mizrahi candidates for Supreme Court justice.

After Justice Edmond Levy retires, there will be no Supreme Court justices of Mizrahi origin, meaning Jewish families from North Africa or the Middle East.

"We view with concern the apparent trend of the continued exclusion of Mizrahim from as important a center of influence as the Supreme Court, to the point of their total absence from there," the petition says.