Behind the Lines: Supreme self-importance

Ex-judges are under the illusion that their stature and the central place the media accords them give their words a special resonance; oftentimes the pomposity becomes ridiculous.

Michael Cheshin 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Michael Cheshin 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The media has room for all kinds of pundits. There are ex-generals directing battles from the TV studios; failed politicians who know exactly what the government is getting wrong; feminists who speak on behalf of all womanhood; and firebrands who are the only defenders of the poor and downtrodden. But it is definitely the latest species of talking-head on our screens who speak with an unassailable self-confidence and are accorded the greatest degree of respect. These are the former Supreme Court justices, descending from their Mounts of Olympus and - as if they never had handed in their robes - delivering absolute judgment on all of us. Over the last couple of weeks, during the fracas surrounding the appointment of Daniel Friedmann as justice minister and Yaacov Genot as police inspector-general, you could barely turn on your TV or open your newspaper without coming upon one of these luminaries pontificating against the appointments which are about to bring the temple down. A former Supreme Court justice is the kind of creature who can instantly grab headlines and airtime whenever he wishes. This is just another symptom of the awe in which most of the media still hold the court, despite its having lost much of its public credibility according to the latest polls. Until recently, these exalted pensioners used their automatic access to the press extremely sparingly. The recent spate of appearances is an indication that the Supreme Court feels increasingly threatened. But it is also a sign of the times in which even the most impregnable ivory tower can't keep itself above the fray. If there is one interview that the entire media is battling for, it is the one in which former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak spills the beans. The nation's last remaining secular saint will probably choose a strategic moment for his beloved law establishment, perhaps when the Knesset is about to vote for a constitutional court, an utter abomination in his eyes. Finally, this figure of complete rectitude and respectability will let rip and tell us what he really thinks about those lousy politicians, and where he stands on the questions of the day. Then again, he might forever keep his peace, preserving his opacity to the grave. THE ONLY exceptions judges used to make to their media silence was in professional publications, such as the interview Barak gave to this month's Israel Bar Association magazine. Though illuminating in its way, it doesn't include any actual political questions, but deals mainly with his personal feelings and philosophy. The unwritten ethical code of the judiciary still mandates that serving judges never give interviews to the press - their reasoned verdicts must do their talking for them. Dealings with the media have to be approved by the Supreme Court president, and almost always take place behind the scenes. Barak, for example, often gave briefings for reporters, but they almost always remained totally off-the-record. This rule has held remarkably well, to such an extent that when Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court Judge Hayuta Kohan's children appeared on television to defend their mother from criticism over the verdict in the Haim Ramon case, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch reprimanded her. But the unwritten rule that has not fared so well is the one forbidding judges from talking about their verdicts or discussing delicate political issues, even after their retirement at 70. The reason behind this prohibition is that public knowledge of the judges' political beliefs would open their historic verdicts to reinterpretation, and thereby erode the majesty of the courts. For decades, that had been the norm: Judges took their personal views and beliefs with them to the grave. If they ever gave interviews, it would be on matters unrelated to the court and the cases they had tried. In 2000, when 18 years after having left the bench, the fifth Supreme Court president, Moshe Landau, gave an interview to Haaretz in which he attacked Barak's judicial activism, the legal establishment was suitably shocked. But in recent years, as a new generation of septuagenarians has become ex-justices, they are becoming enamored with the media. Former deputy court president Yitzhak Zamir began writing op-ed pieces in the newspapers, taking broadly left-wing positions on the questions of the day. His former colleague, Zvi Tal, weighed in on the other side, bitterly attacking the disengagement plan. Another retired justice who enjoys the limelight is Dalia Dorner, who has something to say about everything, and who, six months ago, was appointed president of the Press Council. BUT THE brightest star in this constellation is another former deputy court president, Mishael Cheshin. He was always known as a colorful character, from the sharp-tongued way he addressed lawyers in the courtroom to his lyrical verdicts, but once he was released from the shackles of office, he could really let himself go. In a retirement interview with Haaretz, he caused a storm when he said of Barak: "He's prepared to see 30 or 50 people blown up, as long as human rights are preserved." Then he promptly went on air to apologize to his old friend. But Cheshin doesn't seem to have learned a lesson: Two weeks ago, he said of Friedmann's appointment as justice minister that "the court was my father's home, and it is my home, and whoever threatens my home, I will chop off his hand." Once again Cheshin was forced to apologize, saying that he was speaking only metaphorically and was swept by his deep personal feelings. But he went on to make another controversial statement, saying that Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter's decision to appoint Genot inspector-general "filled my heart with pain, sorrow and despair." Zamir himself broke the rules again, when he also criticized the appointment, despite his personal involvement as one of the judges who had originally acquitted Genot 10 years ago. The ex-judges are under the illusion that their stature and the central place the media accords them give their words a special resonance, but their sense of self-importance seeps through in their appearances and, as a result, they begin to seem slightly ridiculous to the man-in-the-street. I haven't seen any polls yet, but I'm willing to bet that these interviews, given to defend their beloved court, have actually caused it a great deal of damage. As citizens of a democracy, we should probably be pleased that the justices of our highest court are finally coming clean, if only after retirement. The justices themselves are probably beginning to wish they had adhered to their old rules.