Tensions high as Israeli Supreme Court convenes on judicial overhaul

September 13, 2023 by Pesach Benson
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Tensions were high at Israel’s Supreme Court as justices gathered on Tuesday morning to hear petitions against a key component of the government’s judicial overhaul initiative.

Israelis demonstrate outside the Supreme Court building as justices hear petitions against components of the legislation on Sept. 12, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS

Although a ruling will not be given today, the hearing itself is already taking Israel into unchartered legal waters.

Opponents of the judicial overhaul filed petitions against the “Reasonableness Law” to restrict judges’ use of the “reasonableness” standard. The amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary bars “reasonableness” as a justification for judges to reverse decisions made by the Cabinet, ministers and “other elected officials as set by law.”

The Knesset passed the legislation as a Basic Law, giving the legislation a quasi-constitutional status.

While the Supreme Court has issued rulings on government laws numerous times over the years, this is the first time justices will be ruling on a Basic Law.

Supporters of the law argue that the justices have no grounds to review a Basic Law.

“Presidents and justices of the Supreme Court over the generations all agreed—the people is the sovereign, and its will is represented in Basic Laws legislated by the Knesset,” said Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the key architect of the judicial overhaul.

“The court, whose justices elect themselves behind closed doors and without a protocol, is placing itself above the government, above the Knesset, above the people and above the law,” he continued.

“Until today, despite highly problematic judicial activism, there was at least one agreed basis—the court respected Basic Laws,” he added. “This is the basis that preserved democracy in Israel. The responsibility for preserving this joint basis lies with the court.”

The law’s opponents say it tramples on Israeli democracy, gives the executive branch too much power, and criticize the way it was rushed through the Knesset.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a statement ahead of the hearing that the issue isn’t a constitutional one because the amendment in question “isn’t a Basic Law and doesn’t even resemble a Basic Law.”

“This is an irresponsible document that someone wrote ‘Basic Law’ on, and they have since demanded it be treated as holy writ,” said Lapid.

“The High Court will this morning discuss a law that is a deviant and thuggish private member’s bill by [Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman] Simcha Rothman, which wasn’t even passed by the government, which was managed in a process that was violent, rushed, sloppy, boisterous and unrestrained, and which has nothing to do with Basic Laws,” Lapid continued.

While petitions are typically heard by a panel of three or more justices, this will be the first such hearing with all 15 justices participating.

Further adding to the sensitivity of the case, Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut and Justice Anat Baron are due to step down from the court in October. Retiring justices are allowed several months afterwards to write rulings on cases they have been involved with.

The governing coalition’s judicial reforms are deeply controversial. Other legislation would alter the way judges are appointed and removed, give the Knesset the ability to override certain High Court rulings, and change the way legal advisors are appointed to government ministries.

Supporters of the legal overhaul say they want to end years of judicial overreach, while opponents describe the proposals as anti-democratic.

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