More transparency needed in picking Supreme Court justices

Freedom of information advocates: Publish names and details on candidates.

Israeli Supreme Court 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/FILE)
Israeli Supreme Court 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/FILE)
Freedom of information and civil rights advocates called on Monday for increased transparency over the way justices are appointed to the country’s most important legal institution.
They spoke out after the judicial selections committee failed to appoint new Supreme Court justices on Sunday night.
“The meetings are hidden, there are no protocols, and journalists are not allowed to attend,” said Karine Nahon, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s social sciences faculty and an expert in freedom of information, transparency and government accountability.
Nahon, who is also a member of NGO The Movement for Freedom of Information, slammed the judicial selection committee for “operating in obscurity.”
“It’s difficult for the public to find out what’s happening. We have to depend on leaks, including via journalists.”
The nine-member committee, chaired by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, does not announce the dates of its meetings to the public, and does not release protocols or even summaries of the meetings.
Significantly, the names of those judges put forward as candidates for the Supreme Court judiciary were not publicly released this year – even though the committee is required by law to do so 30 days before the selection meeting takes place.
“The public is locked out of this important process of selecting Supreme Court justices,” said Nahon. “If the candidate list had been released to the public, we could have had a process of discussing it.
Increased transparency would allow a debate about the constrictions and the equilibrium in the Supreme Court.”
However, since the process went on behind closed doors, with only leaks and rumors slipping through, the public was not given information on important issues related to the judicial selection process.
“For example, we don’t know how many candidates are women, if there were Sephardi or haredi candidates,” said Nahon.
By bringing information about judicial candidates and the selection process itself into the open, the public would be able to play a greater role in the process and its confidence in the Supreme Court judiciary would increase, Nahon believes.
However, Nahon says that the controversial proposed legislation to make all Supreme Court appointments subject to a public hearing in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee is not the solution, and would only serve to blur the boundaries between the judicial and legislative branches of the government.
One solution Nahon suggests is to make the judicial selection committee meetings themselves more transparent.
“The meetings could be open to journalists, protocols could be published, representatives from different public organizations could be involved more in the decision process,” she said.
Nahon believes that lack of transparency is a problem in Israel, not just in the judicial selection committee but also in other government agencies and in the Knesset, but says there are signs that the Israeli public is starting to demand increased government transparency – not only over judicial appointments but over other important issues like security.
Recent media attention given to the judicial selection committee following the controversy over proposed legislation to change the way justices are selected was a response to increased calls for more public scrutiny of the process, she said.
“In the last two weeks, we saw the public demand some sort of discourse [over judicial appointments], for increased information-sharing. After the social protests of last summer, people are more aware and increasingly want to be involved as stakeholders in government decisions. The media caught on to that, and took it further,” said Nahon, who believes information-sharing technologies like blogs have been a powerful force behind this public conversation.
These public demands might lead to increased transparency over judicial appointments, Nahon said.
“There is a chance that this might happen, because we are hearing more and more public voices and there is increased public pressure. Something has changed in the last year, something has woken us up,” she added.
Attorney Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, disagreed with Nahon’s suggestion that the judicial selection committee meetings should be opened, because he said the meetings needed to be able to discuss matters that could not be public, like candidates’ personalities and private details.
However, Yakir supported the idea that the judicial selection process needs to be more transparent.
“Deals are done behind closed doors and there is public uncertainty over who the candidates even are,” Yakir said.
“All this contaminates the selection process.”
Yakir slammed Neeman for not publishing the list of judicial candidates as they are required to do. Neeman caused public confusion, Yakir said, by referring to candidates from previous selection lists, many of whom were not relevant anymore.
“The selection committee should publish the list of candidates 30 days before the committee meetings so that the public can file any objections to specific candidates,” he said.
Yakir also added that the “very alarming” wave of proposed legislation to change the way that justices are chosen has also undermined public confidence in the process of judicial selection and by extension in the Supreme Court.
In the past, Yakir, noted, Supreme Court justices did not discuss their political views in public and left them out of the equation when making legal rulings. Now, however, politicians are creating new legislation to appoint the justices they want, such as Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg, who is seen as a conservative.
“The judiciary should be apolitical,” said Yakir. “That also affects public confidence in the independence of the Supreme Court justices.”