Courtesy of JNS. Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
MK Simcha Rothman during the hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on the “reasonableness law,” Sept. 12, 2023

(JNS) — A tense exchange took place between Israel’s High Court of Justice and member of Knesset Simcha Rothman during Tuesday’s hearing on the “reasonableness law” as the latter told the court it had no right to intervene in the law, and that the hearing itself reflected the court’s failures to respect the public will.

The court is reviewing petitions asking it to strike down the “reasonableness law,” which the Knesset passed as an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary on July 24. It bars justices from using “reasonableness” as a justification for reversing decisions made by the cabinet, ministers and “other elected officials as set by law.”

Rothman, who heads the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and is a chief architect of the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform plan, told the court it is caught in a conflict of interest.

“The very thought that it is possible to hold a legal hearing, clean and sterile, when the basic question up for discussion is whether the court is acting properly today, or acted properly in the past, indicates a blurring of values,” he said.

“Can you be the ones to judge this question, without fear, without bias, without being biased given you are dealing with your honor, your position and your powers?” he asked.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut responded that the justices are not concerned with their honor or status but with the public’s honor.

Rothman replied: “If the court had respected the judgment of the other branches [of government] and above all the judgment of the public that elected them, and used the variety of tools at its disposal to correct the moral and democratic distortion in the phrase ‘Everything is justiciable,’ there would not have been a need to amend Basic Laws.

“In fact, the very existence of this discussion indicates that the court does not respect the judgment of the public,” he said.

Last week, Rothman submitted a petition to disqualify Hayut from sitting on the “reasonableness law” case, arguing that she was biased given a speech she delivered in January in which she sharply criticized the ruling coalition’s judicial reform program.

“Anyone who reads the speech in its entirety will come to the clear conclusion that the opinion of the honorable Supreme Court president, Esther Hayut, is completely ‘locked in,’” Rothman said.

Rothman, who for years has been an outspoken critic of the court’s gradual accretion of power, first came to the public’s attention through his work as legal adviser for the Israeli NGO Meshilut — The Movement for Governability and Democracy, which focused on the need for judicial reform.

He told the court Tuesday, “In a democratic country, the people are the sovereign. Don’t try to take from the nation of Israel democracy, and their trust in democracy. … Public trust in the court has been waning because of the court’s extensive involvement in social, economic and political matters.

“Democracy is the best, or least bad, method that mankind has found to solve the problems of joint decision-making by a large number of people,” Rothman said.

He cautioned the court against being “tempted to become senior partners in the work of legislation, to receive applause from part of the public, while the other part rejects your rulings. If you do this, the exit from the constitutional crisis that Israel has found itself in for many years will be prolonged and complicated.”

Rothman quoted former Supreme Court President Moshe Landau (1912-2011), suggesting that the court has become “an oligarchic regime of a [small] group of people.”

Basic Laws are thought of as quasi-constitutional, meaning they have greater weight than regular laws and the court treats them as a constitution giving it the power to strike down Knesset legislation.

Although some critics of the court question whether Basic Laws truly constitute a constitution, the government accepted in its arguments the position that Basic Laws hold a special status, and due to that status, the court has no right to interfere with them.

“The government of Israel contends that this esteemed court has not the authority to place itself above the sovereign of the state and assume for itself the power of judicial review over Basic Laws which form the pinnacle of the normative pyramid in the Israeli judicial system,” it stated in its written response to the court.

The court is hearing arguments from eight petitioners against the law, representing an array of government watchdog and civil society organizations. Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara has also asked the court to strike down the law.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin issued a statement on Tuesday morning slamming the Supreme Court for taking up the case, arguing that it has no legal grounds on which to do so.

“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 Levin.

“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,” Levin added. “This is the basis that preserved democracy in Israel. The responsibility for preserving this joint basis lies with the court.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid also issued a statement ahead of the hearing, arguing 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 Israeli Supreme Court has never struck down a Basic Law, a move that would be akin to the American Supreme Court striking down an amendment to the United States Constitution.

The court is expected to take weeks or even months to reach a decision on the matter. Hayut reaches the mandatory retirement age for judges of 70 on Oct. 16 but she can issue opinions for three months following her retirement.