Beinisch: Friedmann's reforms may not be legal

Says "Judicial system must have administrative independence."

beinisch 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
beinisch 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch told reporters on Sunday that the past year (during which Daniel Friedmann has been justice minister) has proven how essential it is for the judiciary to have administrative as well as substantive independence. "The dependency of the judges on the executive can cause severe damage," said Beinisch. "It threatens their substantive independence [in making legal rulings]. If the judicial branch is not independent, there is a danger that the judges will understand that they have to seek favor with the executive branch. Today, I think the crucial importance of this fact is quite clear." Beinisch was speaking during what is developing into an annual meeting between her and reporters covering the Supreme Court. She holds these meetings to report on what the judicial system has achieved over the past year in comparison with its goals, and its plans for the coming years. She said one of her two long-term objectives was to achieve administrative independence. According to current law, the justice minister is responsible for budget allocations, and is also involved in senior court appointments. Beinisch divided her address into two topics - her long-term goals, including obtaining independence for the judicial system, and her short-term aim of making the judicial system more efficient. She said her second long-term goal was to establish a fourth level of courts, in addition to the magistrate's, district and supreme courts. This new court would handle criminal and civil appeals, reducing the burden on the Supreme Court, which currently handles close to 5,000 such cases each year. Beinisch added that this change would require legislation. In the meantime, she is examining different models to determine how the new court would best operate. Beinisch said the judicial system had made a good start last year in achieving its short-term goal of making the court process more efficient. According to the Courts Administration, the Supreme Court closed more files in 2007 than it opened. The figures showed that in 2007, 11,668 cases had been concluded compared with 11,319 that had been opened. For the first time in at least five years, more "important" cases were concluded than opened; i.e., appeals regarding civil and criminal cases and High Court petitions, added up to 4,889 cases compared with 4,687 that had been opened. Also, the average number of months from the beginning until the end of a High Court petition dropped from 13.22 months to 11.77. The same held true in 2007 for the district and magistrate's courts. Courts Administration director-general Moshe Gal added that out of more than 1.1 million files opened last year, decisions had not been handed down by six months after the last hearing in only 371 cases. "This was because of the enormous effort of the judges," said Beinisch. "I don't know how long they will be able to keep up this pace of work." One short-term project meant to speed up the process is aimed at having the courts hear cases at a more intense pace by scheduling hearings about twice a week. The Courts Administration has also appointed a committee of judges to advise other judges how to speed up their work and is working on a training program to teach new judges how to write decisions. Beinisch was asked about some of the proposals initiated by Friedmann to reduce the power of the courts vis-à-vis the Knesset and the government. Regarding Friedmann's proposal to alter the composition of the Judges Election Committee so that politicians or their appointees would hold a majority of an expanded, 11-person panel, Beinisch said, "This is one of the most harmful initiatives to the judicial system. It causes injury to the constitutional structure." She also criticized his bill to establish a search committee to choose the presidents and deputy presidents of the magistrate's and district courts instead of the current arrangement where the appointments are made by a joint decision of the justice minister and the president of the Supreme Court. "This is [part of] a program to take away the prerogatives of the president," said Beinisch. "Friedmann says this is because the Supreme Court president is not responsible for his decisions because he is not elected by the public. This is an incorrect understanding of the judicial system. The whole court structure is such that it is not made up of elected officials. Trying to weaken it because it is not responsible to the public goes to the very roots of the judicial tradition in Israel. There has been a constitutional understanding since the establishment of the state. "Every justice minister knew who was in charge of the judicial system." Beinisch added, "[Friedmann] has plans, that is true. It is part of his world view. I hope the Knesset will understand the ramifications of these plans and act accordingly. If the Knesset approves his legislation, I will hand my concern over to every Israeli citizen." Beinisch said she was not sure the changes Friedmann wanted to made were constitutional.