Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann on Wednesday distributed for reactions the drafts of two new bills that immediately aroused the wrath of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and the Israel Association of Judges.
Meanwhile, MK Ofir Paz-Pines of Labor called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fire Friedmann because of his proposals.
The first bill calls for a far-reaching overhaul of the Judges Election Committee aimed at reducing the power of the Supreme Court and increasing that of legislators.
According to the bill, the committee that elects new Supreme Court justices would include two representatives each of the cabinet, the Knesset and the Supreme Court. In addition, the government would appoint two representatives, one of them a former judge and the other someone from the legal profession. The panel's 11th member would be an academic who does not have a legal background and is appointed by the presidents of the schools of higher learning.
Currently, the Judges Election Committee is composed of nine members, including the president of the Supreme Court and two other Supreme Court justices, the minister of justice and another minister, two MKs and two representatives of the Israel Bar.
Friedmann wrote that "this proposal is meant to change the composition of the Judges Election Committee in order to broaden the variety of opinions represented there and to allow for greater public involvement in the election of the Supreme Court justices."
Meanwhile, a committee of nine members composed of the president of the Supreme Court, two retired district court judges appointed by the presidents of the district courts, the minister of justice and another minister, two MKs and two Israel Bar representatives would elect lower court judges.
Friedmann's second bill would change the way the presidents and deputy presidents of the lower courts are picked. According to the bill, presidents of the district and magistrate's courts would be elected by a five-person committee composed of a retired judge appointed by the minister of justice, a retired judge appointed by the president of the Supreme Court, the head of the Courts Administration and two judges from the court whose president is being elected.
Deputy court presidents would be elected by a three-person panel comprising a retired judge appointed by the minister of justice, a retired judge appointed by the president of the Supreme Court and the president of the court whose deputy president is being elected.
The bill also calls to cancel the arrangement whereby courts can appoint acting judges for limited amounts of time from among lower court judges. According to current Supreme Court policy, the only district court judges it has promoted to the Supreme Court previously served as acting justices for periods of about nine months each.
Beinisch said Friedmann had not informed her that he was about to present the proposed legislation and that she had learned about them from the media.
She said the immediate consequence of the proposal to change the composition of the Judges Election Committee "is damage to the professionalism and independence of the judiciary that amounts to more politicization of the procedure to elect judges."
The Supreme Court would be twice harmed by the proposal, she said. Not only would it lose one of its three representatives on the panel, but the relative weight of the justices would be further diminished if the total number of members was increased by two.
Israel Bar Chairman Yori Geiron also spoke out against the bill. "The judicial system may be in need of reform, but the last body that ought to be changed is the Judges Election Committee," said Geiron, who has served eight years on the panel. "In the tension between the desire of the politicians to turn the committee into a representative group and the desire of the judges to regard it as an exclusively professional body, the committee in its present format provides the best balance."
MK Orit Noked (Labor), another member of the committee, said Friedmann's bill would reduce the independence of the court. She said she would raise the matter at the next Labor Party faction meeting.
Paz-Pines said Friedmann's bill was "part of the war he declared on the judicial system and his efforts to reduce its power." Rather than democratizing the system, as he claimed, Friedmann was politicizing it, Paz-Pines said.
Beinisch also criticized Friedmann's proposal to establish committees to elect the presidents and deputy presidents of the lower courts. She said that a plan had been under consideration whereby a search committee would recommend candidates for the presidency and deputy-presidency of each lower court to the minister of justice and the president of the Supreme Court. The two would have the last say.
Friedmann's proposal rendered this option impossible, wrote Beinisch.
She also warned that Friedmann's proposal could create a situation where judges "run" against each other for court presidencies, conducting "election campaigns" that would divert them from their real work.
Meanwhile, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Varda Alshech, head of the Israel Association of Judges, wrote an angry letter to Friedmann saying the two sides had agreed that the judges would be informed in advance of any bills having to do with the courts. In this case, they had learned about his new legislative proposals through the media.
Alshech also said that if a committee elected the lower court presidents, the judges would get caught up in election campaigns at the expense of their work.