The new comptroller

It took Knesset 3 secret-ballot rounds last Monday to elect Judge Joseph Shapira as new state comptroller.

Knesset building 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset building 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It took the Knesset three secret-ballot rounds last Monday to elect Jerusalem District Court Judge Joseph Shapira as the new state comptroller. On July 4, he’ll take over from the hard-hitting, headline-making and often confrontational incumbent, Micha Lindenstrauss.
Shapira was unequivocally the choice of most of the coalition, newcomer Kadima included. The fact that he wasn’t a shoo-in proves that the enlarged coalition isn’t necessarily a steamroller. Nonetheless, no far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from this case.
For one thing, Shapira is the first candidate for controller in decades who had competition. Most his predecessors faced no rivals. Moreover, contrary to the commentators’ buildup, personal choices and secret ballots in the Knesset plenum are unpredictable and not conducive to factional control.
Likewise it’s highly premature, to say the least, to predict that Shapira will be putty in the hands of the parties that favored him. During his years on the bench Shapira evinced an overall liberal mindset with significant emphasis on human rights and the supremacy of the rule of law. To assume that he’ll turn into a lackey is more than unfair.
Besides, high office in itself has been known to generate unforeseen dynamics that belie superficial forecasts and popular perceptions.
Warren Burger, chief justice of the United States from 1969-1986 (president Richard Nixon’s nominee), is a classic example. Despite his marked conservative inclinations and reputation as a strict constructionist, his tenure produced milestone reforms of a distinctly liberal nature.
Closer to home, the fresh appointment of Asher Grunis as our Supreme Court president was hyped as presaging a fundamental shift from the ultra-interventionist stance of his predecessor Dorit Beinisch. So far, however, no marked departure can be discerned. If anything, all of Grunis’s recent controversial rulings appear to faithfully toe the Beinisch line.
Differences in temperament notwithstanding, it’ll be no less difficult for Shapira to break away from Lindenstrauss’s legacy abruptly and sharply. The astute political money is on Shapira trying hard to live up to the high expectations that the proactive and at times hyperactive Lindenstrauss has created. The pressure on Shapira will be to maintain continuity rather than to opt for a strident departure.
Lindenstrauss was a maverick from the outset. He was the first comptroller in a long time not to be picked from among the ranks of retired Supreme Court justices. That spotlighted him as his own man. Notably, Shapira like Lindenstrauss earned his experience in a lower court.
When Lindenstrauss took office seven years ago he announced his intention to name names and to not allow anyone in high places to get away with anything.
He vowed not to be a toothless tiger, as many before him proved to be. Their voluminous reports were often ignored despite having pinpointed severe shortcomings.
Lindenstrauss didn’t let his output gather dust on forgotten shelves.
He conducted unprecedented public opinion campaigns and – for better or worse – went after corruption with great hoopla. As he became the most unlikely of media stars, so his power grew and he emerged as a fearinspiring force for officialdom to contend with.
It’s unlikely that this trend can suddenly be fully reversed, much as many of Shapira’s backers may ardently wish he’d do just that. Doubtless many in our top echelons looked askance at Lindenstrauss and included him in their overall exasperation with our super-activist judiciary, though the comptroller clearly isn’t part of the legal hierarchy.
It would be no disaster should it transpire that Shapira isn’t as media-savvy as Lindenstrauss uncannily has been.
That too can sometimes get in the way of impartiality, as was amply evident in Lindenstrauss’s sensationalist handling of the Mount Carmel Fire probe. But Lindenstrauss’s tenacity is certainly worth emulating, as in the ongoing Harpaz Affair.
Reports on both the above are still to be published and the latter is plainly being held up through blatant delaying tactics by some of those who need to respond to the draft version. We dare hope that Lindenstrauss will somehow manage to complete his tasks and not leave hot potatoes to his successor.