Right Wins First Round in Battle for Supreme Court

Bill sponsors want the law passed by next meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee, so that the Justice Minister can push through the nomination of his favored candidate.

The controversial bill that would alter the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Monday, and is expected to be rushed through committee so it can come back to the plenum for its first reading next Monday.

The bill's sponsors, MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Zeev Elkin (Likud ), want to get the law passed before the next meeting of the appointments committee. That would strengthen Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's position on the panel, making it more likely he could push through the nomination of his favored candidate, Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg, to the Supreme Court.

Kadima MKs waving black flags - Emil Salman - 15112011
Emil Salman

Many on the left oppose the religiously observant Sohlberg's appointment on grounds of what they say are problematic rulings on human rights issues.

If the bill becomes law, the Israel Bar Association chairman would be obligated to fill one of the bar's two seats on the Judicial Appointments Committee, while the other representative would have to be from the bar's opposition faction.

Under current law, the bar's national committee can choose any two members to represent it. The bar is due to choose two new representatives next Tuesday.

The bill was initiated after it emerged that former bar association chairman Yori Geiron, who is considered close to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, had retained control of the bar's national committee, even though he lost the bar chairmanship to Doron Barzilai, who is identified with Neeman.

MKs voted 50-35 to pass the preliminary reading, with two abstentions.

Neeman, who is not an MK, was not in the plenum during the vote. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Atzmaut faction boycotted the vote.

MK Roni Bar-On (Kadima ) said the law was "a big land mine for democracy and the separation of powers in Israel."

"The government never interfered with the doings of the bar association" until the current government came into power, he said.

The sponsors' original plan was to try to hold a marathon debate on the bill and push it through all three of its readings this week, before the bar chooses its new committee representatives.

But that plan was scuttled for several reasons. The Justice Ministry says the current wording of the law makes it unconstitutional - and even if it passed, it would not go into effect until published in the government gazette, which would take a few weeks.

The opposition, meanwhile, had announced it would conduct a filibuster that would prevent the bill from passing in the time frame the coalition would want.

So to ensure that, if passed, the law would influence the makeup of the panel that is to vote on Sohlberg's nomination, Elkin arranged a parliamentary trick: He inserted a clause that would require the bar to hold new elections for its appointments committee representatives once the law goes into effect.

Neeman, who chairs the Judicial Appointments Committee, is thus expected to delay convening it by a few weeks, so as to allow the law to take effect and the new process to play out. The meeting is currently scheduled for Monday.

Meanwhile, bar association members who support Geiron petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday asking it to annul the decision by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to support the Elkin-Ilatov bill, saying the way it passed the committee leaves grave doubts over whether the government actually supports the bill.

The petitioners are demanding the bill be voted on again by the full cabinet.