For all the judicial reform drama of the last year – heated debate, protests, and eventually legislation – one might imagine Tuesday’s High Court of Justice hearing on petitions to strike down the reasonableness standard law to be the most solemn of affairs.
All 15 justices assembled for the first time at the semicircle bench before long, rowed-off pews. The Jerusalem stone walls, white columns, and bright lights grant the courtroom a hallowed aura, like that of a synagogue – but Israelis aren’t often given to pomp.
Perhaps foreign courts are strictly governed by ceremony and protocol, but an Israeli courtroom is still Israeli.
An Israeli courtroom: Casualness amid the drama
While at times there were sharp exchanges, the justices, respondents, and petitioners alike were more prone to joke and make sarcastic comments than to yell at one another, perhaps undercutting some of the dramatic tones the hearing received due to the gravity of the matter.
When Dr. Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, finished presenting his petition with an appeal for the court to issue a verdict as soon as possible, Justice Isaac Amit said sarcastically: “We’ll write it tonight.”
The seats were packed to the brim with observers, lawyers, and journalists, and the entire room erupted in laughter.
During breaks, the petitioners and respondents mingled. Ilan Bombach, an attorney for the government; Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu teased the redheaded Shraga over an example of unreasonable laws used in the deliberations – discrimination against ginger-haired people.
Much of the argumentation wasn’t about reasonableness and the July 24 law restricting it. Most of the time was devoted to the authority of the court to be able to strike down quasi-constitutional basic laws.
Most of the justices seemed certain of the court’s ability to strike down basic laws, but just as many seemed critical or hesitant about the reasonableness law meeting the extreme requirements to strike down the legislation. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and others seemed to reject attempts to paint the law as part of a broader agenda that would damage Israeli democracy; they wanted to discuss the specifics of the law at hand.
After more than 12 hours of arguments, everyone was exhausted, regardless of what side they were on. The patience of Hayut was short at times, jabbing at the respondents when they failed to satisfy her inquiries. Yet before closing responses, she also laughed about how long the hearing took.
With all the talk of politics and law, it can be easy to forget that politicians, judges, lawyers – the people behind the ideas and policies that we argue so vehemently over – are people.
These people fought furiously for or against the judicial reform, no doubt seeking to win. Yet for all the talk of history-making and crisis, there were still people in that room having these arguments, and they were aware of this obvious fact.
The rhetoric has been high in the streets and the Knesset, with leaders on both sides becoming caricatures and symbols of reviled movements.
Whatever happens next, the hearing was reasonable, with citizens presenting their positions in a passionate, respectful, and intelligent manner. The Israeli approach, treating one another in that familiar tone as people, hasn’t yet been completely struck down.