Israel Reflections 2013–A Meeting with a Judicial Giant

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A highlight of our trip was meeting with Justice Aharon Barak. Barak has been hailed as the father of Israeli constititutional law, and Justice Elana Kagan called Justice Barak her “judicial hero.” His remarks covered a widespread range of topics from the development of Israeli law to several difference famous Israeli Supreme Court cases to the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Two different students share their thoughts below:

From Alexandra Weiland:

On a recent trip to Israel with Marquette University Law School, our class was fortunate enough to meet with Justice Aharon Barak, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court. Barak’s contributions to the Israeli legal system could be characterized as staggering. 

Barak was born in Kaunas, Lithuania and survived the Kovno ghetto before immigrating to Palestine with his parents in 1947. Barak became Attorney General of Israel in 1975. In 1978, he became the youngest Justice on the Supreme Court of Israel. In 1995 he became the President of the Supreme Court. He served in this position until 2006. In this role, Justice Barak championed a proactive judiciary and established judicial review in Israel. He is cited as being the most influential jurist in the history of the State of Israel.

He was kind enough to meet with our small group of 32 law students and four faculty members and to share his insights into the Israeli legal system. For an hour, he graciously answered our questions about various aspects of Israeli law and his experiences on the court. One story particularly stands out. Justice Barak recounted receiving an award from Justice Scalia. [The Pursuit of Justice Award presented in 2007 by Justice Scalia at the U.S. Supreme Court] As part of his acceptance he said, “when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, I was there.” He was speaking metaphorically, using Brown as an example of a case with international import in which the rights conferred to U.S. citizens were felt by individuals across nations. On a broader level, he was addressing the interconnectedness of international legal communities. He explained that he intended this message as somewhat of a cautionary tale to Justice Scalia; he was warning the Court to stay relevant in the international community by at least being conscious of what other nations are doing, particularly in human rights law. This message was part of a larger discourse between Scalia and Barak on the role of comparative law in a national jurisprudence. Some of Barak’s perspective can be found here: Comparative Law, Originalism and the Role of a Judge in a Democracy: A Reply to Justice Scalia by Aharon Barak.

Aside from the ongoing conversation on comparative law, I think I have isolated why this story stands out for me. One of the great values international travel offers is the chance to contextualize oneself as a small actor in a massive global ommunity. For me, the trip to Israel transferred this perspective to my role as a law student in the international legal community. I think that Justice Barak’s urging for the U.S. Supreme Court to stay relevant implicitly invites law students to stay cognizant of our own situation within the international legal community: one contributor to one legal system operating within a nebulous multitude of interconnected, overlapping, sometimes conflicting legal systems. I don’t know what the implications of this perspective will be but I hope to carry it with me as I continue to develop my understanding of both U.S. and international legal systems.

From Catherine Loew:

I will always remember two paraphrased quotes from Justice Aharon Barak. He said to be true to yourself. I took this comment to heart. To know what is just, we must always look to ourselves to make that decision. The internal compass is vital to leave the world a better place than we found it. We are also responsible to hold our government and courts to what we know to be right. I am criticized for not accepting the world for how it is. I refuse to concede; we must improve the access to justice, safety, and equality.

Additionally, he spoke of the award he received at the U.S. Supreme Court for his life’s work in Israel. In his reflection on the difference between Justice Scalia and himself, he said that he feels that Scalia stops where he would start. Scalia looks at the historical judicial and legislative intent of the decision. Justice Barak stated it would be his first question, but not his last. I took from this story the need to always question the past, present, and future. The respectful expression of his quest for what is right requires an open mind to question. Law is a living, changing thing.

Cross posted at Indisputably.

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