Law panel approves bill giving justice minister more powers in establishing new courts

The Knesset Law Committee on Monday approved for second and final readings a bill granting administrative powers to the justice minister and the director-general of the Courts Administration during the first three years of the establishment of any new district or magistrate's law court. The committee approved the draft, which was the focus of a public dispute between Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, by a vote of 11 to four. Representatives of Kadima, Likud, Shas, Agudat Yisrael, Yisrael Beiteinu and National Union-NRP backed the bill, while those of the Labor Party, Meretz and Balad opposed it. At one point, Labor Party faction chairman Eitan Cabel threatened to foment a coalition crisis over the legislation. According to the bill, Friedmann will be empowered to determine which topics will be handled by a new court and which will remain under the aegis of an existing court that was responsible for the new court's area of jurisdiction before the new court was established. The law instructs the justice minister to consult with the Supreme Court president, but he does not have to listen to her. The head of the Courts Administration, an appointee of the justice minister, will decide which files currently in an existing court, are to be transferred to any new court. Beinisch and her supporters, including the minority of MKs on the Law Committee who opposed the bill, charged that by approving the legislation, the executive branch was encroaching on the judiciary's independence. Beinisch has declared that one of the main goals of her tenure is to achieve complete administrative autonomy from the government, including the allocation of funding for the judicial system. According to committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), the approved draft was a compromise between those who wanted Friedmann to be able to decide on all aspects of transferring files to new courts, and those who did not want him involved in the procedure at all. The need for legislation arose over Friedmann's decision last year to establish a new administrative district under the jurisdiction of a new court, the Central District Court. Although the law empowered him to do so, it did not authorize him to determine which subjects the fledgling court would deal with or which files would be transferred from the existing court to the new court. Friedmann drafted a bill giving the justice minister both powers, not only pertaining to the Central District Court but all new district and magistrate's courts. Even though the final version was softer than the one Friedmann had envisioned, the bill created severe tensions between those who believe Friedmann wants to destroy the Supreme Court and those who argue that the court has assumed too much power in recent decades. The tensions simmered over during the beginning of Monday's meeting. MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) shouted at David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), "This law is meant to cut off Beinisch's head," he charged. "That's the reason you came to the Knesset." Michael Eitan (Likud) accused Paz-Pines of doing the bidding of former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. "I remember how you sat like a mafioso [when Pines served as chairman of the Law Committee] with Meir Sheetrit (then-Minister of Justice] and Aharon Barak and you celebrated... the cancellation of the bill to establish a constitutional court." Pines retorted: "You belong to the mafia which wants to eradicate the Supreme Court."