(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The term of office of Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz expires in February. By that time, the government will have had to choose his replacement.
As matters now stand, however, it is not certain what the prerogatives of Mazuz's successor will be, or even what skills and expertise may be required of the candidates.
Over the past few months, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman has stated on occasion that he favors splitting the duties of the office of the attorney-general into two positions. One would be that of legal adviser to the government, while the other would be chief prosecutor. Both functions are currently included in Mazuz's responsibilities. Others, too, over the years, have suggested separating the two jobs. Such suggestions need to be weighed with great care.
IN 1997, following the government's controversial appointment of Ronnie Bar-On, then a member of the Likud central committee, as attorney-general, a public committee headed by retired Supreme Court justice Meir Shamgar was appointed to study all aspects of the position. The panel was composed of some of the country's leading jurists and included former justice ministers David Liba'i, Moshe Nissim and Haim Tzadok and Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison. They recommended retaining the dual role of the attorney-general as chief prosecutor and adviser to the government. They also called for distancing the attorney-general from the political echelon by having a five-person search committee recommend a non-political candidate to the cabinet for its approval. The search committee would be headed by a former Supreme Court justice appointed by the court's president.
Despite the recommendations of the Shamgar Committee, which were approved by the cabinet, there is a great deal of support today for splitting the attorney-general's job. These supporters raise two main arguments. One is that for a democratic system of government, too much power is concentrated in the hands of a single, nonelected official.
Secondly, the roles of chief prosecutor and adviser to the government clash when the attorney-general is faced with the dilemma of indicting a cabinet minister. At least two of the members of the Shamgar Committee, Ruth Gavison and Moshe Nissim, indeed, support a different arrangement than the current one in which the attorney-general is personally involved, on a day-to-day basis, with the responsibilities of the chief prosecutor and the legal adviser to the government.
Last year, then-justice minister Daniel Friedmann proposed a bill to split the functions of the attorney-general in two. Even on the face of it, it was a highly controversial move because instead of using the Justice Ministry's legislation section to prepare the legislation, he outsourced it to a private lawyer, Dan Avi-Yitzhak.
But there were other, more substantive problems with the measure, particularly with the changes that it proposed regarding the status and functions of the legal adviser to the government. According to Friedmann's bill, the government would decide itself how to choose the legal adviser, "since a great degree of cooperation and mutual confidence is required between the government and the adviser in order for the adviser to succeed at his job."
The second serious problem with the proposal was that it would have given the government the authority to ignore the legal adviser's opinion, so that even if the legal adviser asserted that a government bill or action was illegal, the government could discount it.
SHAMGAR HAS not changed his opinion that in order to maintain the authority and power of the roles of chief prosecutor and adviser to the government, the functions should remain united in one person. "The coordination between these two tasks is what gives the office of attorney-general its power," says Shamgar.
But even those who believe that there is a need to separate the functions of chief prosecutor and adviser to the government must make sure that the proposal does not weaken either one of them, particularly that of the legal adviser to the government, as Friedmann would have had it.