Sunday, November 22, 2009

On Thursday the Supreme Court issued yet another over-the-top decision. This one ruled unconstitutional a Knesset law permitting the state to contract with privately administered prisons. The press has widely reported that the justices ruled that privately administered prisons would likely create worse conditions for prisoners to the extent that basic rights would be jeopardized.

Actually, the justices wrote nothing of the kind. What they actually wrote is considerably more flaky than that. The whole decision is worth reading.

The first questions anybody should ask themselves are: Have any other countries had to deal with the issue of privatizing prisons? Has any other country even entertained the idea that such a move is unconstitutional? The answers are yes and no , respectively, as Beinish herself notes (paragraphs 59-61).

So what special provisions does our non-existent constitution have that could render privatizing prisons unconstitutional? None actually. But, citing political philosophers through the ages, Beinish has concluded that being confined to a privately administered cell is somehow a greater violation of one's freedom than being confined to a state-administered cell, even if conditions in the privately administered cell are materially better than in the state-administered cell. If this sounds like mushy stuff, that's because it is. The problem begins and ends with the Barak-inspired hysterically broad interpretation of the mealy-mouthed phrase "dignity of man".

Nevertheless, the real core of the matter lies elsewhere. The main issue is the interpretation of the limitations clause which reads:

There shall be no violation of rights under this Basic Law except by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required.


The question is what is the meaning of the phrase "no greater than is required". There are two possible interpretations. One is that the "proper purpose" can't be achieved in some other manner that would constitute a lesser violation of rights. The broader interpretation is that the worthiness of the purpose must be weighed against the extent of the violation. The broader interpretation is generally disdained because there is no way for judges to compare the two on the basis of law; such a comparison must necessarily be a matter of ideology and hence not in the proper purview of judges.

Thus, for example, Peter Hogg, Canada's leading constitutional scholar, writes regarding the question of proportionality:

So far as I can tell, however, this step (the proportionality test -- BC) has never had any influence on the outcome of any case. And I think that the reason for this is that it is redundant. It is really a restatement of the first step, the requirement that a limiting law pursue an objective that is sufficiently important to justify overriding a Charter right.


Barak responds to Hogg's view: "I cannot accept this approach." And, indeed, if in Canada the proportionality test "has never had any influence on the outcome of any case", this is manifestly not the case in Israel. Barak established the use of the proportionality test for replacing the judgment of elected officials with his own in two opinions, one on the route of the separation fence ("Beit Sourik") and the other (a minority opinion) on the temporary amendment to the citizenship law regarding immigration through marriage ("Adalah"). This way leads to anarchy.

And now it has. Beinish's decision rests crucially on the failure of the prison law to pass the proportionality test. She rules that saving the state over a billion dollars through outsourcing prison administration is not in proportion to the entirely imaginary violation of a prisoner's right to reside in a publicly administered prison. After a whole lot of fireworks meant to show that this phantom violation is so egregious as to violate universally recognized norms of human decency, she is forced to confront the fact that no other country has ever acknowledged that it even is a rights violation. And here, acknowledging openly that the proportionality test is all smoke and mirrors, she bites the bullet and just admits that she is winging it. Here is the absolutely breathtaking paragraph 53 (I'm too lazy to translate):

בבואנו לבחון את שאלת קיומו של יחס ראוי בין התועלת הצפויה מהגשמת תכליתו של תיקון 28 - שיפור תנאי הכליאה תוך חיסכון כלכלי מירבי - לבין הנזק הטמון במתן כוח הפגיעה באסירים בידי זכיין פרטי, עלינו לזכור כי בהיותו של מבחן המשנה השלישי של המידתיות מבחן ערכי במהותו, הוא תלוי במידה בלתי-מבוטלת בערכים ובנורמות הנוהגים בחברה הרלוונטית. מטבע הדברים במדינות שונות עשויות להיות תפיסות עולם שונות בכל הנוגע לסוגיה של היקף תחומי האחריות של המדינה וליחס שצריך להתקיים בין תחומי פעילות שינוהלו על ידי הסקטור הציבורי לתחומים שעיקר הפעילות בהם תיעשה על ידי הסקטור הפרטי. תפיסות עולם אלה נגזרות, בין היתר, מאידיאולוגיות פוליטיות וכלכליות, מההיסטוריה הייחודית של כל מדינה ומדינה, ממבנה המערכת הפוליטית והשלטונית ומערכים חברתיים שונים. הבדלים אלה בין המדינות השונות באים לידי ביטוי בתוכן ההסדרים החוקתיים הנקבעים בכל מדינה ומדינה. תפקידו של בית המשפט, שנדרש לפרש ולצקת תוכן להסדרים החוקתיים השונים אינו, כמובן, להכריע בין אידיאולוגיות כלכליות ופוליטיות שונות; אולם, יחד עם זאת נדרש בית המשפט לבטא את הערכים המעוגנים בקונצנזוס החברתי וביסודות הערכיים המשותפים לבני החברה, לזהות את עקרונות היסוד העושים את החברה לחברה דמוקרטית ולחשוף את הבסיסי והערכי תוך דחיית הארעי והחולף

You might have thought that social consensus is determined at the ballot box, but that's wrong. The voters' choice represents the "temporary and fleeting"; it is the Court's job to "identify the underlying principles that make this society democratic and to reveal that which is basic and valuable".

3 Comments:

Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I have to say that I can envision quite a few mechozi level judges who still have a religious/zionist/center-right perspective on things who will be quoting that paragraph in many contexts that Beinish/Barak never really imagined.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Shlomo said...

"There are two possible interpretations. One is that the "proper purpose" can't be achieved in some other manner that would constitute a lesser violation of rights. The broader interpretation is that the worthiness of the purpose must be weighed against the extent of the violation."

Is it just me, or is the exact same issue at stake in the discussion of Israeli military operations and potential war crimes liability?

11:40 PM  
Anonymous harrykann said...

Ben Chorin,

I was a student in Prof. Peter Hogg's class, at Osgoode Hall Law School, many years ago. I would have paid more attention during his lectures, had I known that he would be quoted by an eminent scholar (i.e. you), many years later. Shame on me for a silly goose !

7:04 AM  

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