In the wake of a high-profile scandal in which prosecutors in a major corruption case exchanged private text messages with a judge about its planned strategy, Israel’s Supreme Court has announced new rules to prevent further one-sided communications.
Under the new rules all contact between the judge and the investigative and prosecuting bodies will only be made during court hearings. Aside from in the courtroom, no direct requests are to be made of judges, but rather are to be filled through the court administration.
This makes a great deal of sense, and gives the court system a chance to rebuild whatever public legitimacy it has lost from the scandal.
The Israeli Supreme Court has hired a media consultant for the first time. The consultant’s role will include helping Chief Justice Esther Hayut coordinate the work of various spokespeople throughout the court system.
Some in Israel are painting this as a gimmick to improve the legitimacy of the court system through public relations. But media adviser is a pretty common role in the United States, where many state and local courts have public information officers. It strikes me as an entirely reasonable move in a country with a sophisticated media and fast-moving news cycle.
Miriam Naor, the former President of Israel’s Supreme Court, recently gave a rare public interview in which she defended her private meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while serving on the Court. Naor maintained that she was appropriately discussing major legislation that would effect judicial branch operations. Critics argue that such meetings could compromise the integrity of a court that could eventually hear criminal charges against the Prime Minister.
This is a delicate thing. As I have noted regularly on this blog, most courts worldwide depend significantly on the other branches of their respective governments for resources and enabling legislation. It is both pragmatic and smart for the administrative head of a court system to share judicial concerns and perspectives with lawmakers. But closed-door meetings invite the perception of an improper, closer-then-arms-length relationship between the branches and their representatives.
Two nominees for Israel’s Supreme Court were confirmed this week. Alex Stein, a Brooklyn Law professor who was born in the Soviet Union, will join current Tel Aviv District Court judge Ofer Grosskopf on the country’s highest court. They will replace Yoram Dinziger and Uri Shoham, whose terms end later this year.
The nominations were not without controversy. Stein has lived in the United States for the past 14 years (he previously lived in Israel), but has a reputation as a conservative and was strongly supported by current Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The confirmations also came just a week after another Tel Aviv District Court judge, Khaled Kabub, withdrew his candidacy for the Supreme Court. Kabub, an Israeli Arab and a Muslim, faced stiff confirmation headwinds after another Israeli Arab, George Kara, was appointed to the court last year.
Israel’s Judicial Selection Committee reportedly is strongly considering Khaled Kabub, currently a district judge in Tel Aviv, for appointment to the country’s Supreme Court. If appointed to an open poisiton this coming February, Judge Kabub would be the first Muslim to sit on the court in a permanent capacity.
The Selection Committee includes (among others) current members of the Supreme Court, the country’s Justice Minister, and representatives of the Israel Bar Association. It is the bar association that is reportedly pushing Kabub’s candidacy. The choice is interesting not only because of Kabub’s religion, but because of his current position: he would be replacing Justice Yoram Danziger, who came to the court from the private sector, and there had been a general understanding that Danziger’s replacement would also be a private attorney. The bar association, however, has argued that it is important for the Court to reflect all segments of Israeli society, and the appointment of a Muslim judge would advance that cause.
I have written previously about the rabbinical courts in Israel, a court system which shares jurisdiction with Israel’s civil courts on divorce, family law, and personal status cases, but which applies entirely different law. This disparity often leads to a race to the courthouse among dueling spouses in divorce cases. Among the most controversial aspects of the religious law is a husband’s traditional power to withhold permission for the couple to divorce, which can trap women in unhappy or abusive relationships. Of late, the rabbinical courts have attempted to respond by sanctioning these “recalcitrant husbands,” although not to the degree advocated by women’s rights groups.
In an important new ruling, Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau has announced that aspiring rabbinical judges will now have to certify they have personally have not refused to grant their own wives a divorce. While refusal to grant a divorce is not automatically disqualifying, it will have that practical effect on a candidacy. An official in Rabbi Lau’s office stated that “Disqualifying candidates to be rabbinical judges for having been divorce refusers constitutes a values-based statement that a man who does not listen to the instructions of a rabbinical court can never be allowed to be a judge in a rabbinical court.”
Justice Esther Hayut was unanimously elected to the position by the country’s Judicial Appointments Committee. The vote appears to have been pretty pro forma, in that the position traditionally goes to the longest serving justice. But the unanimity of voting members also masks some tension between Israel’s right-leaning and centrist parties over the composition of the Supreme Court. The Times of Israel has a fuller explanation.