'Set up public panel to safeguard courts' independence'

Bar Association Chairman Yori Geiron calls on PM to establish c'tee headed by Shamgar, Barak.

By DAN IZENBERG
August 20, 2007 00:00
3 minute read.
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Bar Association Chairman Yori Geiron on Sunday called on the prime minister to establish a public committee headed by former Supreme Court presidents Meir Shamgar and Aharon Barak to examine what measures are necessary to ensure that the judicial system, led by the Supreme Court, remains independent. "I am convinced that the democratic regime in Israel must protect the courts, and the Supreme Court at their head, and to take action to safeguard an autonomous and independent judicial branch," said Geiron. "The public must conduct a deep, systematic, clear, detailed and pluralistic debate which will lead to the establishment of a judicial authority within the boundaries of accepted principles." One of the major criticisms against Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who has initiated a series of sweeping reforms aimed at weakening the role of the Supreme Court, is that he has done so unilaterally, without negotiating with the Supreme Court or consulting legal experts. Friedmann has recently called for just such a debate, seeming to reverse his tendency, established in his six months in office, of acting alone. However, the purpose of the debate, Friedmann stressed in an interview with the Ha'aretz daily, would be to prepare the ground for legislation aimed at weakening the court. Asked whether he wanted to limit the powers of the High Court by amending the Adjudication Law, Friedmann replied, "Not hastily. After serious consideration, after an orderly and comprehensive public discussion. We must redefine the scope of the powers of the High Court. If we do not do this by consent, it will happen without consent. The MKs will feel free to change the rules of the game as they wish, with bad results." During a series of meetings with Shamgar and Barak over the past two weeks, Friedmann reportedly said he would initiate legislation to grant the court system administrative independence. Currently, the minister of justice is responsible for the court's budget, the number of administrative and judicial employees it may hire, the construction of new court houses and many other factors. Friedmann reportedly told Shamgar and Barak that he agreed to allow the court to handle these matters itself as long as the responsibility for administering the court system was in the hands of a public committee rather than the president of the Supreme Court. According to the reports, the public committee would consist of judges, including the president of the Supreme Court, and public figures. In the weekend interview, Friedmann did not specify how the public debate over the constraints he intends to impose on the powers of the courts would take place. The justice minister has already introduced three major changes in the system as it has operated until now. The first limits the tenure of the president of the Supreme Court to seven years and abolishes the seniority system for choosing a new president. The reform also limits the tenure of lower court presidents. The Knesset has already passed that law. The second is aimed at expanding the number of members of the Judges' Election Committee from nine to at least 11. Originally, Friedmann called for adding two new members, a representative of the academic community and the chairman of the Knesset Law Committee. He also recommended dropping two of the three Supreme Court representatives and replacing them by one representative each of the magistrate's and district courts. In his interview with Ha'aretz, Friedmann contradicted his earlier proposal, saying he wanted to add "a public figure and more people from the public service, not more politicians." However, the aim remained the same. "We must appoint judges that have a different judicial approach than that which has been the rule in the Supreme Court," said Friedmann. "People coming from the private sector, for example, who see with their own eyes the consequences of High Court rulings. The justices who are in office today come from a certain milieu, they live within their milieu and don't see the public." The third change that Friedmann is seeking to introduce would allow the Knesset to override a High Court ruling that cancels a law on the grounds that it violates Israel's constitutional legislation (i.e., the Basic Laws.) According to Friedmann's proposal, should a majority of 61 MKs vote to pass the law despite the court ruling, it would become valid for a minimum of five years (unless the Knesset itself changed it in the interim.) At the end of five years, petitioners would be allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the law again. In his interview, Friedmann announced for the first time that he was willing to consider increasing the required Knesset majority to 65 or that there would have to be at least 10 more MKs favoring the "override" than opposing it. For example, 61 MKs would not be enough to reinstate a law if more than 51 MKs voted against it.

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