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Israel’s Supreme Court is internationally known as the bulwark of civil and human rights in the country’s democracy. On numerous occasions it has used its muscle to scale back the initiatives of Israel’s legislature and executive branches. But it has taken decades for Israel’s top court to gather this power and stature.
The main reason for this gradual build-up of stature is the absence of a constitution. In the country’s seminal legal document, the May 1948 Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founders called for the drafting of a constitution within a half year. But in the ensuing chaos of the country’s struggle to fend off invading Arab armies, the deadline passed.
Two years later, lawmakers fought bitterly over the nature of a potential constitution. Secular representatives wanted the document to reflect the legal values of Western liberal democracies, while religious lawmakers insisted that the Torah and halakhic (Jewish legal) tradition should serve as the basis for the legal system of the Jewish state. Failing to reach a consensus, the lawmakers decided the constitution would be constructed gradually, in a piecemeal fashion.
They did this through establishing a special type of legislation known as “Basic Laws.” This type of legislation takes precedence over everyday laws, and these laws can only be changed by a special majority. It was envisioned that the Basic Laws would eventually acquire the force of a constitution, but for the time being, they would have a quasi-constitutional force: stronger than regular laws but weaker than a formalized constitution.
So, while the Basic Laws were put in place to organize various branches of government almost immediately, Basic Laws establishing a series of constitutional values like the ones enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights were delayed.
Today the Supreme Court has 14 members, though the number has been as low as 10 in the past. The judges are appointed for life but are required to retire at 70. In the effort to divorce politics from the appointment process, the justices are selected by a council made up of jurors, ministers, lawmakers, and legal professionals. The top court usually decides cases sitting in three-judge panels, though the number is often expanded for more weighty cases. The largest panel consists of 11 judges.
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