The Public's Servants, Not Its Masters

The purpose of the new code of conduct for judges is to remind them that they are the public's servants, not its masters.

For the first time in Israel's history, a behavioral code has been formulated for judges. Its purpose is to lay down binding rules for appropriate behavior in the courtroom.

The document, written by the Courts Administration (and reported in Tuesday's Haaretz by Tomer Zarchin ), is expected to be approved by a joint committee comprised of delegates from the administration and the Israel Bar Association, and headed by former Supreme Court Justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen, who once served as judicial ombudsman.

Disclosure of the code has stirred criticism among retired senior judges. They claim the rules will "turn judges into obedient clerks" and lead to "policing the courts."

The judges' objection to a code designed to dictate basic rules of behavior to them is understandable. At first glance, the rules seem self-evident: to refrain from shouting or making hurtful utterances, to ensure that hearings start at the scheduled time, and so on.

Nonetheless, the reports of the judicial ombudsman cannot be ignored. Among other things, these reports have highlighted instances of behavior that would be prohibited under the new standards.

It is well known that judges at various levels of the court system take the liberty of doing whatever they please in their courtrooms. Frequently, they insult attorneys and witnesses and abuse the power they have at their disposal. In the past, such phenomena led the bar association, then headed by Shlomo Cohen, to ask lawyers to fill out annual evaluations of judges. The ongoing reality in the courtrooms has led to renewed demands for such evaluations.

Most incidents unsuited to a courtroom could be avoided were there more stringent procedures for appointing judges, including the sort of personality checks that are common in many other work places. Judges have a guaranteed job until they retire at the age of 70, and this fact can enhance their feelings of power.

Most judges cannot be accused of inappropriate behavior. Yet the current circumstances warrant action that protects the dignity of those who enter the halls of justice and also enhances the public's faith in a judicial system that is supposed to represent the very best behavior by public servants.

The purpose of the code of conduct is not to harm judges. Rather, it is meant to remind them that they are the public's servants, not its masters.