(photo credit: Courts Administration)
“Politics is not a magic word” that makes “any legal change, initiative [or appointment] illegal,” Justice Noam Sohlberg told petitioners seeking to strike down a bill intended to increase political appointments to key government positions.
Attorney Yuval Yoaz, representing the Movement for Purity of Ethics, slammed the bill, noting that the government’s own lawyers had warned the Knesset that the bill was just barely legal and created incentives for public corruption.
Monday’s hearing followed the High Court of Justice’s December 4 interim decision to freeze the bill. The proposed legislation would enable ministers to place more of their political allies in high-powered government positions, sidestepping current requirements for open competition.
While ministers themselves are political appointees, most government officials who work for the ministers are career professionals with no political affiliation.
The dispute is about how far changes can go that might contradict the professionals’ understanding of their limits in enacting policies. In other words, can politicians legislate away the ability of bureaucrats to tell politicians what they cannot do, so they won’t face such resistance? Those who approved the legislation view getting more political appointees into their ministries as a way to circumvent professional-level opposition.
The bill would allow any ministry with more than 150 employees to have an additional top-level political appointee. It would also allow more control by politicians over search committees, where such committees are mandated by law.
Sohlberg and High Court President Esther Hayut gave Yoaz a hard time during the hearing, saying his attempts to use the government lawyers’ opinion as a cudgel against the bill would not work.
Hayut said Yoaz was claiming the government did not have authority to pass this kind of a bill. She pointed out, however, that the government’s legal advisers and Yoav’s objections only related to worries about politicization and abuse of the law’s implementation, not authority.
On the flip side, Hayut did grill the state about whether the bill was sufficiently explicit in defining the powers and duties of the new politically appointed positions, such that departing from the open-competition principle was legally justified.
Yoaz argued that the High Court’s rulings have set down a cardinal principle that politicization must stay out of the public sphere. He said the bill is beyond the Knesset’s authority because it is inherently inconsistent with the court’s apolitical principle.