The Israeli Supreme Court

The highest court in the land stands up to the government policy and second-guesses parliamentary regulations.

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Although Israel's court system has functioned without a formalized constitution, it inherited a substantial legal code that was already in place at the time the state gained its independence. The Ottoman Turks ruled pre-state Palestine for hundreds of years until World War I and left a lasting legal imprint in the Land of Israel, particularly on property law.

When the British took control of Palestine under an international mandate, they continued to enforce Ottoman law unless new regulations were adopted. During the 26 years of the mandate, British common law became the standard which formed the basis of Israel's legal system. The British influence also rooted the doctrine of stare decisis--the preeminence of legal precedent--within the Israeli system. Of course, as Israeli legal code and case law expands, the influence of the Ottoman and British traditions are receding.

A third source of influence in Israel is Jewish law, which governs personal law. Although religious judges from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities adjudicate in issues of personal law, the Supreme Court also functions as the last word in these issues as well.

The Influence of Jewish Law

The Declaration of Independence promised to establish a state based on the social justice envisaged by the Hebrew prophets, and Jewish legal codes are often consulted by Supreme Court justices when crafting their decisions. The justices must also take into consideration international treaties to which Israel is a signatory, like the Geneva Conventions. Finally, the Supreme Court also keeps an eye on legal precedent in leading democracies such as the United States.

Israeli courts have riveted the eyes of the international community at many times since Israel's establishment. In 1961 the Jerusalem district court presided over the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the central figures who carried out the Nazi regime's "Final Solution" to exterminate world Jewry. The ultimate conviction resulted in the only death sentence ever handed out in history by an Israeli court.

More than 30 years later, the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence issued by a lower Israeli court for John Demjanjuk, a Russian native extradited from the U.S. on charges that he worked for the S.S. and was known as "Ivan the Terrible."

The Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom

In 1992, Israel's legal system underwent a mini-revolution. The passage in the parliament of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom enshrined for the first time in Israeli law the preeminence of human rights such as liberty, mobility, privacy, and property. The person who used the term "revolution" was the Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak.

Between 1992 and 2006, when Barak retired from the Supreme Court, he turned his court into the most activist judicial force in Israeli history, using the 1992 Basic Law to second-guess government regulations and parliamentary laws that infringe on those human rights.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.