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Judicial revolution: Will proposed judicial system reform bring long awaited changes or spell an end to democracy?

Justice minister reveals plan to overhaul court, judge selection process

Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset, Jan. 4, 2023. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

One thing is for sure: If the plan presented by the new justice minister yesterday to overhaul the Israeli justice system goes through, the power of the judiciary will be severely curtailed.

However, whether that is a good or bad thing is currently being hotly debated in Israel.

Proponents of the overhaul say it is about time that an activist court be controlled. Opponents say it will upset the balance of power and give unprecedented power to the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings.

Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin – a Likud member and loyalist of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – revealed his overhaul plan on Wednesday. In it, he calls for severely limiting the power of the Supreme Court while elevating the ability of the Knesset to revive laws struck down by the court.

“A law passed by parliament can no longer be struck down by a judge," Levin said. "It is up to the elected government to decide the laws."

This reform, he said, will go a long way to “strengthening democracy, rehabilitating governance, restoring faith in the judicial system and rebalancing the three branches of government.”

Levin recommended granting the government control over judge selection and limiting the power of the government’s legal advisors.

Another change that would hamper the High Court’s ability to overturn laws, would be requiring a special-majority vote of the 15-judge panel, which has not been determined but could be as high as 14 of the 15 judges.

“There will be no more striking down of Knesset laws without authority,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest change would be the “override clause” granting the parliament with the ability to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority – 61 of the 120 Knesset members.

Israel does not have a constitution, but the legal system is based on what is called the “Basic Laws” – which cover human rights – that carry quasi-constitutional status, however, can be amended or annulled by a simple majority of the court.

Proponents of Levin’s reforms say that Israel’s courts have long been ruled by liberal, activist judges.

Opponents warned that it will remove checks and balances.

Of course, there is also the issue of timing. Currently, the coalition wants to approve Aryeh Deri as both interior and health minister, despite a law that bars anyone with a conviction to serve as a Cabinet minister. Arguments on Deri’s appointment are being heard today.

WHAT THE REFORM INCLUDES

Levin noted some critical changes contained in his plan. One calls for the composition of the judicial selection committee to be changed, giving “equal representation to all three branches of government.”

“There will no longer be a situation whereby judges choose themselves in back rooms with no protocol,” he said.

To accomplish this, he proposed adding two “public representatives” chosen by the justice minister instead of by the Israel Bar Association. This would bring it to a total of five coalition members on the nine-member committee – granting the ruling government a majority in the judicial branch, as well as legislative.

Another change includes banning the court from using a “reasonableness” standard in determining the legality of government or ministerial decisions. This, he said, would “restore the decision-making capability of the elected government.”

“There is no such thing as “the cause of reasonableness,” he said.

The status of government and ministerial legal advisors would also be changed and their policies not seen as binding. This could serve to give ministers greater control over policy.

“These reforms will strengthen the legal system, and restore the public’s trust in it. They will restore order: It will allow the legislatures to legislate, the government to govern, legal advisers to advise, and judges to judge,” Levin said.

OPPOSITION REACTS

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called the proposals a “political coup” and noted the timing.

“Like a gang of criminals, the day before the High Court hearing on the Deri Law, the government put a loaded gun on the table,” he said, vowing that, if he returned to power, his bloc would overturn these reforms.

“What Yariv Levin presented today is not a legal reform, it is a letter of intimidation. They threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel,” he said.

Gideon Sa’ar – who was justice minister in the previous government – labeled this plan “regime change.”

Levin’s coalition partners – who will easily be able to push through the reforms in the Knesset – expressed strong support of the proposals.

“We will revise the way we govern. We’ll take steps that strengthen personal security throughout the state. We’ll start by enacting reforms that will ensure the proper balance between the three branches of government,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu’s corruption trial is still ongoing.

Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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