Unsettled Cases

The current complement of 660 sitting judges is still insufficient for the needs of an overburdened system in a country in which crime is rising and litigation has long since become a national sport.

Today, the start of the court system's new term, also marks the entry into force of a new law requiring Supreme Court appointments to be approved by seven of the judicial selection committee's nine members. Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann supported the private member's bill sponsored by MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), which eliminates the previous system, under which a one-vote majority was sufficient for appointment to the Supreme Court.

The new law gives the three Supreme Court justices on the committee veto power over appointments to their court. Yet clearly, the minister will also be able to block the selection of any candidate he opposes, via cooperation with other members of the committee - who include another minister, two Knesset members, and two lawyers chosen by the Israel Bar Association.

The new law was enacted against the backdrop of various proposals - all of which have thus far been rejected - for altering the committee's composition, which has remained unchanged since the founding of the state. These proposals are part of an unworthy battle to reduce the Supreme Court's power, which Friedmann has led since taking office. This battle undermines the court system's ability to contend with serious day-to-day problems that have yet to be solved.

As the outgoing judicial ombudsman, former justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen, noted last week, "the problem of delays in issuing verdicts by the courts is one of the problems the system has not yet succeeded in solving." Her report details the unjustifiably lengthy proceedings in several cases, though she is aware of the unreasonable caseloads that burden almost all the courts.

In the first half of this year, 440,000 cases were pending in the court system, and on average, each case takes many months. For instance, it takes the Supreme Court an average of two years to rule on each civil appeal and an average of over a year for each criminal appeal. Petitions to this court in its role as the High Court of Justice also often drag out, though the High Court is supposed to provide swift assistance. The court continues to write many very lengthy verdicts, all packed with knowledge and comparative law, but this carries a heavy price: Cases involving fundamental issues of principle are sometimes decided only after three or four years. The lengthy delays in High Court rulings undermine the public faith required by a court system that deals with important constitutional, administrative, economic and social issues.

The fact that only 12 of the Supreme Court's 15 seats are currently filled clearly makes it hard for it to handle its unreasonable caseload. But even if another three justices were appointed, which is expected to happen at this month's meeting of the judicial selection committee, the court would still need to make its way through the thousands of cases on its doorstep. It can only envy its counterparts elsewhere in the democratic world, which decide for themselves which cases to hear.

Against this backdrop, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch recently proposed adding a fourth layer to the court system - a national appellate court that would take over all the appeals the Supreme Court is currently obliged by law to hear, thereby easing its burden. This proposal is not new; it has been raised periodically over the years. It was rejected by the Or Commission, which examined the structure of the court system in 1997; that commission instead advised establishing appellate divisions in each of Israel's district courts. Nonetheless, the proposal deserves serious consideration, in order to enable the Supreme Court to focus on High Court petitions and fundamental constitutional issues rather than spending its time on numerous cases that are essentially trivial.

The need for judicial efficiency is the main reason for last week's wise decision by Friedmann and Beinisch to establish search committees to recommend new district and magistrate's court presidents. The very establishment of these committees, whose composition the two have already agreed on, constitutes a declaration that decisive weight will no longer be given to a judge's seniority, but rather to considerations of administrative efficiency, leadership ability and broad legal knowledge. The committees, most of which will be headed by sitting district court presidents, would do well to consult judges in the courts for which they are supposed to recommend presidents. Serving judges know who's who.

The battles between the justice minister and the Supreme Court president have led to neglect of the judicial system in various areas. Most judges work under difficult physical conditions, in crowded offices with insufficient staff. Nor are their salaries and pensions sufficiently attractive. Friedmann has admittedly succeeded in effecting the appointment of many new judges. But the current complement of 660 sitting judges is still insufficient for the needs of an overburdened system in a country in which crime is rising and litigation has long since become a national sport.