Of 'dictators' and Israeli democracy By Moshe Arens
Was Franklin Roosevelt, that great democratic president, who led America to victory over Nazi Germany, a dictator? That was the accusation leveled against him during his second term of office in 1937 when he tried to alter the composition of the Supreme Court that was declaring some of his New Deal legislation unconstitutional. The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, the legislation he tried to pass through Congress, was referred to as the "Court-packing Plan" by his opponents.
The bill was intended to give the president the power to add additional judges to the court, whose conservative majority was striking down some of Roosevelt's legislation designed to bring the country out of the depression. U.S. Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, and the legislation proposed by Roosevelt was intended to give him the authority to appoint additional judges in case sitting judges had reached the age of 70 years and six months, thus overriding the conservative majority of the court. The legislation never passed Congress, and as it turned out was not needed after one of the Supreme Court judges retired.
As is well known, judges to the U.S. Supreme Court are appointed by the president for life, making it essentially a political process - conservative presidents appointing conservative judges, and liberal presidents appointing liberal judges. The composition of the court at any given time is the result of a rather random process depending on the results of presidential elections and the longevity of the sitting judges. Despite the political nature of the Supreme Court appointments the court is held in high regard by the public.
This comes to mind as we watch the attempts in the Knesset to influence the composition of the Israeli Supreme Court, and the charges by the left that the Knesset majority is tampering with the democratic nature of the State of Israel. Even the insult "fascist" is hurled at some of the MKs now and then in the frenzy of the political debate. It is no more appropriate than the charge at the time that Roosevelt wanted to be a dictator. Whether Jabotinsky or Begin would have supported the suggested changes we will never know and is hardly relevant to the issue in question.