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Nearly 80 US legal scholars 'strongly oppose' Israel's judicial reforms

Professors from top US law schools say they 'strongly oppose' the efforts by Netanyahu's far-right governing coalition
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a press conference in Jerusalem on 25 January 2023.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a press conference in Jerusalem, on 25 January 2023 (AFP)

Dozens of prominent American legal scholars from several leading law schools have signed a public statement voicing deep concerns about the proposed changes to Israel's judicial system, joining a chorus of opposition against the reforms laid out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government.

In the statement originally published on Sunday, more than 70 US law professors said the proposed reforms "will seriously weaken the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers and the rule of law in Israel".

"We, law professors in the United States who care deeply about Israel, strongly oppose the effort by the current Israeli government to radically overhaul the country’s legal system," the statement said.

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"This effort includes proposed reforms that would grant the ruling coalition absolute power to appoint Justices and judges, make it almost impossible for the Supreme Court to invalidate legislation" and curtail the independence of Israel's attorney general, it added.

The list of professors rose to 78 as of Monday morning and includes the former deans of Harvard and Yale Law Schools, as well as a number of professors from some of the top law schools in the US, such as Stanford, Duke and the University of California-Berkeley, among others.

Currently, Israel's highest court can disqualify government legislation if it contradicts Israel's 13 basic laws, particularly the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law. Israel's basic laws are intended to be part of the future constitution, which does not exist yet.

However, a new plan proposed by Israel's current government led by Netanyahu would expand the government's power to appoint judges and impede the Supreme Court's power to restrain parliament.

Risk to curbing corruption

The governing coalition currently has three seats in the nine-member committee tasked with appointing judges, but the proposal would grant them five, effectively giving the government a clear majority.

The plan also proposes an "override clause", which will allow parliament members to reenact a law disqualified by the Supreme Court with a simple majority of 61 MPs (out of 120).

It also would allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers rather than appointees who report to the attorney general.

If the plan is fully implemented, Israel will likely cease to have an independent judiciary, and change from a government that must justify its actions to a regime that can act arbitrarily, Israeli prosecutors and state attorneys have warned.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the proposed changes, saying that they threaten the democratic checks and balances the courts have on ministers.

The statement from the American law professors said that weakening the safeguards that exist in the judicial system "would pose a dire risk to freedom of expression, to human and civil rights, and to efforts to reduce corruption".

Netanyahu, who is backing the changes, would also personally benefit from the weakening of the courts.

The prime minister is on trial for corruption, and the law could enable him to evade conviction or make his case disappear. Since being indicted in 2019, he has railed publicly against the justice system, calling it biased against him.

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