Following a tough act

Dorit Beinisch prepares to take the reins.

dorit beinisch 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dorit beinisch 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Although Dorit Beinisch was shaped in the same mold as her predecessor, Aharon Barak, and is expected to lead the Supreme Court along the path he carved out, it is not certain that she will display the leadership qualities that made Barak the most influential Supreme Court president in Israel's history. Beinisch is liberal in her outlook and deeply committed to the supremacy of the rule of law and the importance of defending human rights. She will, in all likelihood, maintain the policy of broad standing and justiciability initiated by Barak with the backing of his predecessor, Meir Shamgar. Beinisch will also enforce judicial review of Knesset legislation. But Beinisch lacks Barak's intellectual and academic credentials, which accounted for a large degree of his power. Barak not only made landmark decisions. He also established the theoretical basis for the decisions he made in a large number of academic books which influenced the thinking of a generation of legal scholars and was disseminated to thousands of students who have joined the ranks of the legal profession over the past 25 years. She lacks the depth and breadth of Barak's knowledge. Many, if not most, of Barak's critics bit their tongues in the face of some of his far-reaching decisions and deferred to his superior intellect and prestige. Beinisch will not have that luxury. Beinisch was appointed president of the Supreme Court because she has served the longest on the Supreme Court of all the current justices. There is no law saying that the justice with the most seniority gets the job, but that has been the tradition of the Supreme Court from its inception. Beinisch will head the Supreme Court for the next six years. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1942. She served in the IDF as an officer in the Department of Manpower, and began studying law at the Hebrew University after her release. She received a bachelor and master's degrees in law and was admitted to the Israel Bar in 1967. She is married to lawyer Yehezkel Beinisch and the couple has two children. Until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1995, she spent her entire career in the Justice Ministry. Beinisch served as a prosecutor in the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office and the state prosecution. In 1976 she was appointed to head the High Court Petitions section of the State Attorney's Office. She was appointed deputy state attorney in 1983 and state attorney in 1989. During her six years as state attorney, she proved to be a courageous defender of the rule of law. Her greatest battle, one that cost her boss, then-attorney-general Yitzhak Zamir, his job, was against the government decision to grant pardons to three members of the Shin Bet in connection with the Bus 300 incident. Shin Bet officials lied to an investigative committee into the deaths of two Palestinian terrorists who had been captured alive after hijacking a Tel Aviv-Ashkelon bus, and tried to shift the blame on to Yitzhak Mordechai, then-head of the Paratrooper Brigade. After they were caught, the government ignored the opinions of Zamir and Beinisch and arranged with president Chaim Herzog to pardon the three before they were indicted. Beinisch also refused to defend the government decision to deport 415 Hamas leaders from Israel to Lebanon soon after Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992. Barak strongly supported the appointment of Beinisch to the Supreme Court against the objections of then-president Shamgar. He appointed her in 1995, soon after succeeding Shamgar. IN THE ELEVEN years since, Beinisch has not displayed the same leadership qualities on the bench as she had as state attorney and was overshadowed by many of her colleagues including Mishael Cheshin, Dalia Dorner, Theodore Or, Eliahu Mazza and Shlomo Levine. She has been low-keyed in her appearances on the bench and seemed to lack the charisma that enabled other justices to dominate the proceedings and leave their personal mark. In the overwhelming majority of cases in which she shared the bench with Barak, she concurred with his decisions. Perhaps her most famous ruling was handed down in January 2000, when she rejected an appeal by a mother who had been convicted of brutal treatment and assaulting a minor for hitting and slapping her children, including two specific cases in which she struck her daughter with a vacuum cleaner and punched her son in the face and broke a tooth. In rejecting the appeal, Beinisch wrote that "corporal punishment is not effective from an educational point of view and causes serious harm to the child." The ruling triggered strong opposition from critics who argued that the court should not intervene in such personal affairs. Her position in favor of protecting Palestinian human rights has also been consistent. In June, she issued a ruling that the IDF and Israel Police must at all times protect Palestinian farmers and their property from attacks by violent Jewish settlers and take immediate and decisive action to stop the attacks. She also voted with the minority in a recent 6-5 decision upholding a Knesset transitional law preventing Palestinian men and women of certain ages who are married to Israelis to apply for residency status in Israel. In one ruling where she clashed with Barak, she voted against allowing right-wing extremist Baruch Marzel to run in the 2003 national election. But if Beinisch has not particularly stood out on the bench, she has proved her mettle in backroom negotiations among the justices regarding new Supreme Court appointments. Beinisch vetoed the appointment of Tel Aviv University law professor Nili Cohen, an expert in torts, restitution and comparative law, even though Barak had wanted her. The battle over Cohen's appointment also pitted her against Boaz Okun, a Barak favorite whom he had appointed head of the Courts Administration. Beinisch refused to work with Okun and left him no choice but to leave the post after only two years. On the other hand, she fought for the appointment of her close friend, former state attorney Edna Arbel, to the Supreme Court. Beinisch might prefer to give the Supreme Court a break after the revolutionary era of Barak. But in an age where the government and Knesset are unable to make crucial decisions and the public feels free to petition the High Court on almost any matter, it is unlikely that she will have time to breathe before the court faces its next controversy.