Former High Court justice Ben-Porat dies at 94

Miriam Ben-Porat was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the first to serve as state comptroller.

July 26, 2012 12:02
Miriam Ben-Porat

Miriam Ben-Porat 370. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Former Supreme Court justice and former state comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat died on Thursday at age 94.

Ben-Porat, who came to British Mandate Palestine in 1936, paved the way for other women to shine in the legal profession.

Born in Vitebsk, Belarus, she grew up in Lithuania and studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Because of her brilliant mind, Ben-Porat was admitted into what was essentially a man’s world.

In 1948, she went to work at the Justice Ministry and in 1959 was promoted to deputy state attorney. In 1958, Ben-Porat left the State Attorney’s Office to become a judge in the Jerusalem District Court, rising to be the court’s vice president, and, in 1975, its president.

Her strong motivation to fight corruption was evident from early on when she declared an election for the Jerusalem Municipal Council invalid because certain envelopes had been improperly stamped and could not be counted, yet – realizing the difficulties new elections might incur – she asked the Knesset to validate the previously uncounted votes, as a result of which all envelopes in elections are now opened.

In 1976, Ben-Porat was appointed acting justice in the Supreme Court. In 1977 she rose to become permanent justice, and in 1983 to vice president of the court.

Many of her rulings, both as a district court judge and as a Supreme Court justice, set legal precedents in matters such as inheritance and defamation.

Ben-Porat also ruled that a husband who forces his wife to have sexual relations is to be regarded as a rapist.

In 1988, when she turned 70, Ben-Porat retired from the Supreme Court, and in the same year was appointed state comptroller.

As state comptroller she cracked down on all forms of corruption and had no compunction attacking the government’s discriminatory practices against the Arab community.

Ben-Porat was in high demand as a lecturer in Israel and abroad. In 1991, she was awarded the Israel Prize, and in 2004 was named a Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem. She also received honorary degrees from various universities.

Ben-Porat was among those who believed the lyrics of the national anthem should be altered so that the nation’s minorities not feel excluded.

After her final retirement at age 80 she continued to contribute to legal thinking through her lectures and writings.

In a message of condolence to Ben-Porat’s family, President Shimon Peres wrote that she had been the cornerstone of the country’s legal system and contributed to forming the character of the state.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed deep sorrow, describing her as “a trailblazer, an esteemed Supreme Court justice, a state comptroller who sanctified the values of integrity and transparency, and an Israel Prize laureate.” He praised her “modesty, her upholding of principles and her dedication to the state” that he said “are a model for equal opportunity and the supremacy of the rule of law in Israel.”

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman – who had served as an articled clerk to Ben-Porat – called her courageous, dedicated and intrepid, saying she had worked unstintingly to maintain the rule of law while upholding the dignity of the administration and the individual and ensuring the security of the state.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin credited Ben-Porat with turning critical investigation into the fourth branch of Israel’s democratic system; as well as imbuing the status of women with new norms. He was full of admiration for the thorough manner in which she conducted her probes into the political and defense establishments and the fearlessness with which she presented her findings. She was the first to launch an investigation in real time, thereby setting a tradition for her successors, Rivlin noted.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yechimovich also expressed sorrow at Ben-Porat’s passing, calling her one of the most active and idealistic personalities in Israeli society, an example worth following.

She noted that in her capacity as state comptroller Ben-Porat had upgraded the level of public standards of accountability and fought against political corruption.

Yechimovich expressed her fervent hope that Israel would be fortunate enough to nurture other people of the stature of Ben-Porat.

Current State Comptroller Yosef Haim Shapira, whose swearing-in ceremony Ben- Porat attended earlier this month, noted that in the 10 years she served in the post, she had transformed that office into an influential institution in the life of the nation and laid new foundations for the state comptroller and the ombudsman for complaints from the public.

Her focus on issues related to power and money, uprightness in the public sector, political appointments, and slush funds, to a large extent set the agenda for the State Comptroller’s Office.

In interviews with Israel Radio, former Supreme Court presidents Meir Shamgar and Aharon Barak both spoke of Ben-Porat’s clarity of mind, her remarkable memory and her attention to detail.

Long after her retirement from the Supreme Court – which she left when it was still in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound – and the completion of her tenure as state comptroller, she continued to visit the current Supreme Court building in Givat Ram almost daily. It was there she did her writing on a variety of legal issues, and it was there that he encountered her only a few days before her demise.

Among the more famous cases in which both Shamgar and Barak were involved together with Ben-Porat was the 1984 scandal in which senior Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agents had killed two captured and shackled terrorists who tried to hijack a bus on route 300 from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon.

The agents were eventually pardoned by president Chaim Herzog and the ensuing controversy led to a new legal principle that authorized the president of the state to preemptively grant a pardon prior to indictment.

The preemptive pardon principle was upheld by Shamgar and Ben-Porat, whereas Barak dissented.

However, professional disagreements did not impinge on private relations, said Barak. Of all the justices who served at the same time as Ben-Porat he believed he had the closest relationship with her. Not only had they both lived in the same apartment building, but, as a child in the Holocaust, Barak spent three years in the Kovno Ghetto where Ben-Porat’s family was murdered, and this created a special bond between them.

Ben-Porat’s only child Ronit had been in the US for a month, tending to her own daughter, who had given birth there. Ronit Ben-Porat arrived in Israel on Wednesday night and immediately went to see her mother, who was running a fever. They talked about a lot of things as they always did, with no secrets from each other.

They had always been completely involved in each other’s lives. When Ronit was about to leave, her mother asked her not to disturb her in the morning because she wanted to have a sound, deep sleep.

She slept so soundly and so deeply, that she no longer woke up.

She was taken to her final resting place at the capital’s Givat Shaul Cemetery on Thursday evening.

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