The Court Is Not 'The Gang From Rehavia'

The appointment of suitable judges is essential for the proper functioning of the judicial system, whose public faith has not been growing over time.

In his new book "Lehiyot Shofet" ("To Be a Judge"), Shlomo Levin, who spent more than 20 years on the Supreme Court bench, rails against the widespread view of the justices as "the gang from Rehavia" - a group with almost identical backgrounds and mind-sets.

Levin - who currently heads the state's judicial training institute, at which most candidates for judgeships must now take a course to test their suitability for the job - writes that he sat in judgment with both religious and secular justices, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, people with varying social outlooks, who sometimes disagreed with each other and gave voice to conflicting worldviews.

This description largely reflects the situation today, in which the judiciary is characterized by suitable representation for women as well as men, and for people from a variety of social backgrounds - though it would still be appropriate to encourage the appointment of more judges from the private sector, while cutting back on appointments from the civil service.

The recent appointment of two private-sector lawyers to the Supreme Court, the first in many years, was a breath of fresh air. Yet the even more recent appointment to that court of three outstanding district court judges correctly painted the district courts as the best source of Supreme Court justices. The same is true of the appointment of district court judges: Almost all come from the magistrate's courts.

This practice, around which the Judicial Appointments Committee's members - three Supreme Court justices, two ministers, two Knesset members and two representatives of the Bar Association - have generally united, highlights the most important principle of all: Judicial appointments in Israel, unlike in the United States, for example, are not based on political considerations.

Even the politicians on the committee take the candidates' professional qualifications into account. Indeed, a recent international legal conference at England's Cambridge University highlighted cooperation between politicians and legal professionals in appointing judges as an appropriate way of creating a bridge between law and society, while simultaneously preserving judicial independence - as long as the decisive considerations are the candidates' legal abilities, experience and efficiency.

The most recent Supreme Court appointments were the first made under a new law that requires seven of the nine committee members to approve new justices. This law, sponsored by then-MK Gideon Sa'ar, has now justified its purpose - choosing justices who enjoy broad approval. Fears that the need for such broad approval would lead to the appointment of lackluster, compromise candidates proved unwarranted. Even those who note the highly qualified candidates who were not selected, such as District Court Judge David Cheshin, agree that those who were chosen - Neal Hendel, Isaac Amit and Uzi Vogelman - are among the judges most respected by their colleagues.

The appointment, for the first time, of two justices (Hendel and Amit) who had never previously served as acting justices was a thorn in the flesh to most members of the Supreme Court. This move deprived the Supreme Court president and the justice minister of the enormous power they had previously enjoyed by virtue of their right to appoint acting justices - who often became permanent justices - without the committee's approval. The fact that a temporary appointment was effectively a prerequisite for a permanent appointment was always problematic, though there is no basis to the claim that such temporary appointees never dared to disagree with the Supreme Court president: Justices such as Dalia Dorner, for example, displayed judicial independence even as acting justices. But in any case, temporary appointments, if made at all, ought to be made with the Appointments Committee's approval.

The recent appointment of at least two (and maybe more) district court judges, of the 21 appointed altogether, over the objections of the justices on the committee is neither a new phenomenon nor an unacceptable one. The committee's two lawyers and four politicians - who usually have a legal background - are capable of studying the candidates' files and forming a reasoned opinion, and are sometimes more open to independent candidates, even if these are opposed by the justices.

Later this month, the committee will convene to select new judges for the magistrate's courts. The appointment of these judges, who serve until age 70, is of supreme importance. The candidates will be interviewed and also participate in a course at which their suitability for the job will be examined. Unfortunately, however, they will not be required to take exams that test their suitability, which are required of applicants to many positions that hold less responsibility, even though the latter can be fired at any time. The appointment of suitable judges is essential for the proper functioning of the judicial system, whose public faith has not been growing over time.