What judges and dockworkers have in common

Both are guilds that extort outrageous perks at our expense. But only one claims to be above criticism.

Netanyahu and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent years, considerable outrage has been directed at the country’s most powerful unions, and justifiably so: Workers at the ports, railroads, electric company and other government monopolies extort outrageous salaries and benefits from the public while providing mediocre service. But one government guild has inexplicably been given a pass even though its behavior is actually far less excusable – because unlike other unions, which make no pretense of any loftier aim than serving their own members, this guild not only sees itself as a moral exemplar, but insists that any criticism of its members is unacceptable. I am talking, of course, about the judges.
Last week, we discovered that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein refused for three years to let police question a judge suspected of child abuse, since the harm from doing so might “outweigh the benefit.” Needless to say, anyone else suspected of child abuse would be interrogated forthwith, since as the courts themselves have repeatedly ruled, “the welfare of the child” takes precedence over other considerations.
But not, apparently, if you’re a judge: In that case, the legal guild will step in to protect you; your children’s welfare can go hang. The fact that he was a family court judge merely adds insult to injury: For three years, he was allowed to continue deciding other children’s fate even as he was suspected of abusing his own.
This case, however, is exceptional. The judicial guild’s routine outrages involve not child abuse, but milking the public purse.
Take, for instance, the shocking revelation just two weeks earlier that many judges deemed unfit for their posts by the judiciary’s own leadership nevertheless continue to inflict their incompetence on the public, because the judicial guild refuses to let them be dismissed without full pensions for all the years they didn’t work – something the law doesn’t currently allow. Even after declaring the problem a “ticking bomb” and acknowledging that the “public was paying a price for it,” Supreme Court President Asher Grunis still insisted that dismissal without full pension was inconceivable: Protecting incompetent judges takes precedence over protecting the public.
Ordinary people fired for incompetence routinely receive pensions only for the years they actually worked. But what’s good for the hoi polloi isn’t good enough for the judges – despite the fact that their education and experience presumably make them more employable than many other fired workers, and that even their partial pensions will be much higher than average, because they are based on a higher salary (the lowest-level judges earn about 2.5 times the average wage; most earn far more). Judges evidently consider themselves deserving of full pensions regardless of how many years they actually worked. And if taxpayers don’t agree, they’ll be punished by having to endure incompetent judges for years to come.
Last month also brought another shocking revelation: The judicial system has rewarded one of the most incompetent judges of all time, Michaela Shidlovsky-Or, with a hefty taxpayer-funded contract. Twice, the state had to compensate litigants who suffered significant financial harm due to Shidlovsky-Or’s unconscionable delays in issuing rulings – delays that respectively totaled 10 and 15 years (the latter set a record). The compensation totaled NIS 305,000; no other Israeli judge has ever cost taxpayers as much in compensation for her own delinquency. Yet despite this behavior, she was allowed to remain on the bench.
But even after she finally retired, the judicial guild continued showering benefits on her: The Courts Administration hired her as a consultant on how to get judges to use its new computer system. After all, she’s one of the gang – and the wife of a former Supreme Court justice (Theodor Or) to boot. So why shouldn’t taxpayers keep subsidizing her incompetence?
Finally, there was February’s fourth revelation: Hila Cohen’s outrageous pension. Cohen is the only judge ever to be ousted by the Judicial Appointments Committee. A disciplinary court convicted her of conduct unbecoming a judge for having fabricated stenographic records of nonexistent hearings, but decided, outrageously, to transfer her to another court rather than firing her (the guild at work again). But the court in question refused to be saddled with her, and she refused the judicial leadership’s plea that she quietly resign (which is how unsuitable judges are usually disposed of). So the appointments committee finally fired her.
Nevertheless, it treated her generously: She received NIS 200,000 in severance pay out of our tax money, even though an employee fired for misconduct isn’t entitled to any severance.
But that wasn’t enough for Cohen: She promptly sued for a pension as well. Since the state had contributed to her pension fund during all her years of employment, she wasn’t entitled to anything more. Bizarrely, however, the government agreed to arbitration, and the arbitrator, naturally, was another member of the guild: former Supreme Court Justice Tsevi Tal. He, without giving any reasons for his decision, decided that Cohen’s misconduct entitled her to a state pension of NIS 8,000 a month, retroactive to the day of her ouster.
Based on the average Israeli woman’s life expectancy, which is 83 years, this translates into a taxpayer-funded pension of NIS 3.2 million for a mere three and half years on the bench, on top of the state’s contribution to her pension fund. But after all, taxpayers are there to be milked; why shouldn’t the judicial guild protect its errant members at our expense?
Judges constantly complain about politicians who criticize the courts, charging that this undermines respect for the judiciary and the rule of law. I agree that respect for the judicial system is vital for a functioning democracy. But respect can’t be imposed by fiat. If the judicial guild wants to be spared criticism, its members’ actions have to be above reproach.
Instead, it has chosen act like the dockworkers’ union and protect its members at any cost, the public be damned. And if so, that’s precisely how it ought to be treated. The public should demand that the judges’ guild stop looting the state’s coffers on behalf of its most incompetent members – and we should criticize it relentlessly until that happens.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.