By DAN IZENBERG, GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Legal scholars and human rights activists on Tuesday sharply criticized Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz for his attack on the High Court of Justice in which he charged that it behaved irresponsibly and that its rulings had cost the state millions, and even billions of shekels.
Meanwhile, Labor Party and opposition politicians accused the finance minister of being part of a conspiracy of cabinet ministers to undermine the Supreme Court.
Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer of the Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute told The Jerusalem Post that Steinitz had used impolite and insulting language when he described the court's decisions as "highly irresponsible and populist."
During a speech before the Globes Business Conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, Steinitz said, "one very significant body in the system is not showing the necessary economic responsibility, and that is the judicial system in general and the Supreme Court in particularâ€¦ In the past few years, there is a mounting trend of rulings handed down primarily by the Supreme Court, but also by lower courts, which involve enormous economic expenditures, macro-economic expenditures, and this happens time and againâ€¦ the courts hand down rulings over and over that cost the budget tens of millions, hundreds of millions and even billions of shekelsâ€¦ Some of the court's rulings demonstrate a lack of responsibility bordering on economic anarchy."
Steinitz referred to three court rulings that cost the treasury large sums of money. One was the High Court's decision to force the government to reinforce all of the schools in Sderot and the Gaza Strip periphery in light of terrorist rocket attacks. The second was a district court ruling - upheld by the Supreme Court - granting working mothers tax rebates for pre-kindergarten child-care expenses. The third was the recent High Court ruling declaring that a law establishing a privately-run prison, which has in the meantime been built, was unconstitutional.
Kremnitzer defended all three rulings and said Steinitz's criticism was "completely unjustified." For example, the government's strategy for protecting the school children in Sderot and the Gaza periphery called for reinforcing the ceilings of hallways but not classrooms. The children were supposed to rush from their classrooms to the hallways in case the warning alarm sounded. But trial runs proved that many of the children could not reach the hallway in the few seconds between the sounding of the alarm and the time the rocket was due to explode.
"The government could not tell parents that they would have to accept a system that placed their children in danger," he said.
As for the decision to grant tax rebates to working mothers, Kremnitzer said the court ruling had been based on its interpretation of existing law. "The Knesset had no problem amending the law to prevent the mothers from receiving the rebate," said Kremnitzer.
As for the example of the private prison, Kremnitzer said the state had taken the risk of continuing to build the facility even though it knew a petition had been filed against it. Furthermore, "the Knesset had erred in choosing the most extreme model of private prison," which made it more likely that the court would reject it.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel issued a statement contradicting Steinitz and saying that "in fact the court only infrequently intervenes in cases where a heavy economic cost is involved."
The organization's legal adviser, Dan Yakir, said that the court's refusal to intervene in a government decision to cut National Insurance Institute income increments was typical of the court's overall approach. Yakir warned that the court would lose all its effectiveness if it was prohibited from ruling on petitions entailing government expenditures.
"It is worth pointing out to the minister of finance that even from an economic point of view, the existence of a functioning democracy, which includes the separation of power of the branches of government, proper administration and human rights is a necessary condition for economic success, international trade and growth," he said.
Labor Party rebels and Kadima Party leaders also blasted Steinitz.
"This is yet another example of the government attacking the rule of law in this country," Labor MK Eitan Cabel charged. "The voice was the voice of Steinitz, but the opinions were those of the entire government, which is doing everything possible to harm the only institution in the country that safeguards democratic values."
Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich said that had the Treasury studied the issue of privatizing prisons the way the court had, it would not have given the project the okay and the court would not have had to intervene.
"The finance minister's attack on the Supreme Court has caused huge damage," Yacimovich said. "A senior minister must internalize the fact that he has responsibility for the state's institutions like the IDF and the courts, and he cannot destroy them by shooting at them aimlessly. His claim that the Finance Ministry makes decisions in a more considered way is ridiculous. Everyone knows how shallow decisions are every year about the state budget and the accompanying arrangements bill."
Labor MK Amir Peretz added that the court had an obligation to intervene when it appeared that the government's privatization policies harmed the public. The Supreme Court, he said, was the citizens' last resort in protecting their rights.
Former finance minister Ronnie Bar-On of Kadima accused the government of being "intoxicated by its own power" and "trampling laws that guarantee the democratic nature of the state."
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