Who Are They to Judge? Jurists Clash Over Controversial Evaluation Survey

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch attacks Doron Barzilay incoming president of Israeli Bar association for undermining the court system.

A head-on confrontation erupted in the legal system Wednesday night over the Israel Bar Association's decision to reinstate a controversial survey in which lawyers evaluate judges.

Speaking at an event at the bar association's Jerusalem office, the group's incoming president, Doron Barzilay, announced that "the evaluation of judges has begun." Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch promptly responded by attacking the initiative as dangerous.

"It's not too late to reconsider," she told Barzilay. "There's no need to destroy the world of yesterday. This is a harmful step. The court system is the backbone of society and is as essential for you as it is for us. Don't harm it."

Beinisch also commented on legislative proposals that she said would politicize the judicial appointment process. "These are destructive proposals that will hurt the independent system that has existed here since the establishment of the state," she said. "Calls for ending the seniority system of choosing the Supreme Court president also undermine a tradition that evolved over the years and ensured the justices' complete and total independence."

Finally, she criticized a proposal by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to refer cases submitted to the magistrate's courts to compulsory arbitration outside the courts. "In my eyes, this proposal is problematic; it raises problems of principle," she said. "The main concern is that in practice, the proposal would enable the privatization of Israel's legal services."

One judge who serves on the judges' representative body told Haaretz that Barzilay's decision is "a declaration of war" on the judges, since he chose to act unilaterally despite the judges' opposition.

At Wednesday's event, Barzilay said that he recently asked the chairman of the bar association's Tel Aviv and Central District chapter, Efraim Nave, to head a task force that would consider the best way to conduct the evaluations. The task force is expected to submit its recommendations in the next few months.

Reinstating the evaluations was one of Barzilay's main campaign promises in the bar's recent election. "The survey is a tool for oversight, a useful index," he said on Wednesday. "The evaluation of judges isn't anti, it's pro. It is pro providing the system with good tools. I said in the past and say again today: The evaluation of judges isn't meant as a weapon, on the contrary."

In the survey's previous format, attorneys graded judges on such things as whether the judge was familiar with the facts of the case, whether he was well-versed in the law, whether he ran the hearings efficiently and his attitude toward attorneys and witnesses. But the judges vehemently opposed the survey and exerted heavy pressure on the bar to cancel it, which the association did several years ago.

Neeman also addressed the Wednesday gathering. He said he had received many complaints from various parties about the disputes and clashes in the bar association and the inability of the bar's different factions to work together following the recent election.

If the factions do not settle their differences, he warned, he will have no choice but to consider amending the law to make membership in the bar strictly voluntary.

But he said he hoped the situation would not reach that point.