High Court keeps courts in emergency state amid coronavirus pandemic

The left has accused the Justice Minister of shutting down the courts to delay Netanyahu's trial

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at The Jerusalem Post-Maariv Group Conference, December 25, 2019 (photo credit: ALONI MOR)
Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at The Jerusalem Post-Maariv Group Conference, December 25, 2019
(photo credit: ALONI MOR)
An NGO petition to the High Court of Justice against acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana for placing the courts in a state of emergency achieved mixed results on Thursday. There was no short-term progress, but potential for long-term change remains.
On the one hand, the High Court said the petition should not roll back the emergency measures during the coronavirus crisis.
On the other hand, the High Court successfully pressured the Attorney-General’s Office to commit to producing a potential law in about a year that would give the Knesset greater oversight over placing the courts under emergency.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) declared victory, saying it had moved the government toward a greater balance between the branches of government and further boosted the independence of the judicial branch.
ACRI had filed the petition, arguing that Ohana had overstepped his authority in shutting down most of the courts despite a history of Israel keeping the courts open even throughout a number of wars and crises over the years.
Many NGOs and Center-Left politicians had accused Ohana of entering the order just in time to postpone Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial.
The trial had been slated to start on March 17, and the Jerusalem District Court had rejected Netanyahu’s request for a 45-day postponement only days before.
But following Ohana’s emergency order, the trial’s opening was postponed until at least May 24.
Politically, the delay was seen as crucial since it came in the middle of coalition negotiations and competition between Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.
Previously, the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel had filed a petition specifically to compel the starting of Netanyahu’s trial on March 17 as scheduled.
The High Court rejected that petition, saying it had supported Ohana’s decision to partially shut down the courts to save the system from further infection after many court staff were infected.
ACRI took a more long-term view, saying a justice minister should never have the unilateral power to close most of the courts.
The High Court was sympathetic to this position and encouraged the attorney-general to propose a new law for the Knesset within 12 months to give the courts clearer control over their own destiny and to involve the legislative branch.
The Attorney-General’s Office did not commit to getting the next government to pass such a law, and the High Court roundly rejected even raising the issue any time before the coronavirus crisis ends.