Behind the Lines: The battle of Beinish

What should be a smooth transition is threatening to turn into a major political and legal scandal.

beinish 88 (photo credit: )
beinish 88
(photo credit: )
As soon as we get over the primaries/elections/coalition talks, and the new government is finally sworn in, we'll be able to get down to the real coronation of the year: the appointment of the next Supreme Court Chief Justice, to replace, five months from now, 70-year-old Aharon Barak. What, in keeping with tradition, should be a smooth transition is threatening to turn into a major political and legal scandal. And the press has already begun to take sides. The Chief Justice has always been the longest-serving judge on the Supreme Court, which is why Dorit Beinish is getting the job. But Beinish's enemies are many and varied, and they're already at work, as are her supporters. The final decision on whether to appoint Beinish or to break with tradition and undergo a selection process will ultimately be made by the new Justice Minister - who will obviously take the prime minister's views into consideration. But the three major Hebrew newspapers are already vying for that minister's attention. Each of them has recently published extensive Beinish profiles and other features on the appointment. From reading these pieces, it's not difficult to gather where each paper's loyalties lie. Ha'aretz is currently running a series of profiles on all 10 Supreme Court justices (five new ones have to be appointed) who will remain on the bench after Barak leaves. Three weeks ago, in the first installment that was dedicated to Beinish, the paper explained that the series would "try to create a background for an informed debate on the question of which justices should serve with them." Aside from noting a couple of fields of law in which Beinish hadn't given rulings and observing that she shied away from many controversial cases, the profile was basically uncritical. She was portrayed as Barak's ultimate prot g . And indefatigable crusader-against-corruption-in-government legal commentator Professor Ze'ev Segal lauded her for her "perseverance and steadfast guarding of principles in ethical standards for public servants." Her landmark rulings were highlighted here, and various law professors described her considerable legacy. A week later, in Ma'ariv's Pessah edition, we met a totally different Beinish. According to the paper's profile of her, she had been as mediocre a law student as she was a legal light-weight as a judge. Where she excelled, according to legal correspondent Moshe Gorali, was in office politicking and in building her own clique of supporters. She made her way to the top, he said, by hitching herself to the rising star Barak, who had been one of her professors. While Ha'aretz dealt at length with the legal precedents she set, Ma'ariv mainly described the web of family, friends, politicians and journalists that enabled her to climb her way up to the Supreme Court. There's nothing surprising about the papers' opposite attitudes. Ha'aretz both sees itself and is seen as a paper usually allied with the legal establishment. It has no problem identifying with Beinish's almost consistently liberal rulings, and is certainly in favor of a Chief Justice committed to continuing Barak's legacy. Ma'ariv for the last few years, especially under editor Amnon Dankner and publisher Ofer Nimrodi, has adopted the radical stance of stridently criticizing the "law-and-order mafia." This may be due in part to Nimrodi's legal travails that landed him in prison. More unexpected was the lengthy piece that appeared last Friday in Yediot Aharonot titled "Your Attention, The Next Justice Minister." It contained a list of urgent steps needed to remedy the "crisis" in the Supreme Court, central among these changing the system whereby the Chief Justice is appointed according to seniority. The writer admitted that in the past, suitable Chiefs had emerged through the old system, but "Beinish doesn't belong to this category." One of the piece's recommendations was to also consider candidates from outside the Supreme Court, and saying that "even within the court there are candidates of a higher legal caliber than Beinish." The piece was surprising because in the past Yediot, too, could usually be relied on to ally itself with the higher echelons of the legal establishment, a tendency led by the paper's senior investigative reporter, Motti Gilat. Is this indicative of a change of tack for the country's most popular newspaper? An answer might be found in the identity of the author of the piece - not one of Yediot's regular journalists, but rather Tel Aviv University law professor Daniel Friedman. One might have expected Friedman to have behaved like his colleagues interviewed in Ha'aretz and support Beinish. But he is part of a growing group of prominent legal experts and lawyers, mainly from Tel Aviv, who are quietly campaigning against her appointment. One of reasons for their opposition to Beinish is the underhanded way in which she blocked the appointment, two years ago, of TAU Professor Nili Cohen to the Supreme Court. According to some observers, Beinish was worried that the highly regarded Cohen would outshine her, and preferred to have her old ally, Edna Arbel, and her husband's former law-firm partner, Yonatan Adiel, instead. Beinish's opponents are divided into two camps. On one side are those who believe that the Supreme Court has too much power and don't want to see an activist Chief Justice of the Barak mold - which Beinish certainly is. Ma'ariv is belongs to that faction. On the other side are the court's supporters, who simply see Beinish as an unworthy justice who will bring the court further into disrepute. Yediot seems to be championing their cause. Ha'aretz is sticking with the traditionalists and the Barak-Beinish loyalists. Judicial appointments are becoming steadily politicized in this country (at least one serious school of thought doesn't view that as a necessarily bad thing). In the "Battle of Beinish," the newspapers are also going to be involved.