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This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, includes a hodge-podge of laws, 53 to be exact. These laws range from treating Hebrew slave, murder, oxen goring, theft, sexual activities, witchcraft, sodomy (with an animal), and pledging. The laws are the basis of civilization. The courts in America and Israel are independent, meaning that they rule independently, without pressure from the executive or legislative branches.
On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the plan to expand the Supreme Court beyond nine justices. Roosevelt had introduced many social laws that the conservative Supreme Court rejected the laws because they said they were unconstitutional. Roosevelt lost the battle; the populace was enraged by the plan to increase the number of justices on the court. Roosevelt, however, won the war; the conservative justices retired.
Today in Israel, the government introduced laws to reign in the Israeli Supreme Court. The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted on Monday to have two amendments to the Basic Law on the Judiciary submitted to a first vote by the full Knesset. The legislation requires three Knesset votes to pass.
The amendments to the basic law would change the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which selects the country’s judges, and bar the High Court of Justice from exercising judicial review or striking down basic laws: a set of laws that have semi-constitutional status. The committee’s vote on Monday to send the legislation to the full Knesset for a first reading marks a milestone in the effort by the government to enact its plan to weaken the judiciary.
The committee’s composition was set by law in 1953 and today includes two cabinet ministers, two Knesset members (including one from the opposition), three Supreme Court justices and two representatives from the Israel Bar Association. The proposed amendment to the Basic Law on the Judiciary would upset the balance in the committee’s composition, creating a majority of five out of nine members representing the interests of the government coalition. According to the proposed amendment, the committee would include three members of the judiciary: the Supreme Court president and two retired judges, who would be selected by the justice minister with the concurrence of the Supreme Court president. It would also include the justice minister, two ministers selected by the cabinet and three Knesset members.
The legislation would also deprive the high court of the power to exercise judicial review or to strike down basic laws. The amendment would add a provision to the Basic Law on the Judiciary stating, “The High Court of Justice shall not directly or indirectly address the question of the validity of a basic law and any such decision shall have no validity whatsoever.”
Another proposition to change the Judicial Appointments Committee is advancing. This second proposal would also allow the coalition to control judicial appointments, but unlike the first bill, the second proposal seeks to increase the number of committee members to 11. The second proposal would have the committee be composed of three Supreme Court justices, three cabinet ministers and three Knesset members (two from the coalition and one from the opposition), plus two public representatives chosen by the justice minister. Increasing the number of committee members would deny the justices the ability to block appointments, because a majority of the members, 7 out of 11, would be chosen by the government coalition.
On Monday, February 13, tens of thousands (estimates from 90,000 to 150,000) people demonstrated against the bills. It will be sad if the bills pass, ending the independence of Israeli courts.