Pennsylvania Attorney General Discusses Legal Cooperation

by Shira Schoenberg

Youth violence, the death penalty, and extradition laws were just some of the issues discussed when Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher joined eight other attorneys general and a member of the National Association of Attorneys General staff for a trip to Israel on July 14-22, 1999. The participants in the mission met with Israeli authorities to find ways for each country to benefit from the other’s justice system.

The attorneys general learned the background of the Israeli legal system from the dean of the Buckman Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University. They then met with Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, as well as Deputy Chief of Justice Systems David Wiener. According to Fisher, this was an opportunity to "learn firsthand about the Israel judicial system." Fisher said there are some similarities between the U.S. and Israeli justice systems, such as the appellate process and procedures, but there are many more differences. For example, U.S. Supreme Court decisions are based on the constitution. Israel, however, does not have a Constitution, and, being only 51 years old, is still trying to establish its laws. Another major difference is that, unlike Americans, Israeli citizens have no right to a jury trial. Decisions are made by judges who are appointed by a merit system.

Also, the death penalty does not exist in Israel. The only time anyone was executed in Israel was in a special case when Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann was executed for his crimes against humanity.

One similarity that Fisher pointed out is that crime, including youth violence, is a concern in Israel. It is not as big of a problem as in the U.S., however, possibly because Israel has a much larger military presence.

There is also less of a separation of church and state in Israel. For example, the Druze, a small religious minority in Israel, have civil and religious courts, both of which are part of the Israeli judicial system. Decisions of the Druze religious courts can be appealed in the same way as civil rulings.

Fisher found Israeli judicial authorities to be "respectful of the U.S. courts" and noted that when Israeli courts have questions, they many times turn to American jurisprudence for guidance. In exchange, Fisher saw several lessons that the U.S. can gain from the Israeli justice system. He considers the Israeli method for picking judges to be preferable to the American way. Instead of appointments, Israel has a merit system "that works and that’s accepted." Fisher also noticed that the Israeli people "have confidence in the judiciary process," something that many Americans lack.

Americans can also learn from the commitment that Israelis have to public service, said Fisher. Every Israeli gives three years of his life to the military. He added that from the attitude of Israelis, "We can learn how honorable public service and electoral service is."

Also, since Israel is such a new state in a land that is more than 3,000 years old, Fisher found it "interesting to see how law evolves." He noticed that, "The culture of the society wove its fabric through court decisions." Since the culture of Israel is, by necessity, one of constant fear over its security, many of its legal decisions reflect that. The U.S., in contrast, is confident of its continuing survival.

The attorneys general met with their counterpart in Israel, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein. Fisher found Rubinstein’s role to be comparable to his own. "He gives legal advice, just like we provide to the states." The Americans found all of their peers in Israel to be "eager to find out how we deal with problems, such as youth violence," said Fisher. He also found that the Israeli officials were interested in the development of the U.S. legal system and the roles of the attorneys general.

Fisher also spoke to the Israeli Attorney General and Justice Minister about problems of extradition between the U.S. and Israel. This issue came up in relation to the case of Maryland teenager Samuel Sheinbein who was accused of murder in Maryland and fled to Israel, claiming that his father’s Israeli citizenship automatically passed to him. After a lengthy extradition battle, Sheinbein is being tried in Israel. Although both officials who Fisher spoke to supported extraditing Sheinbein, they said that every situation is decided on a case-by-case basis and there has been no change in the law resulting from the Sheinbein controversy. Fisher said that both Israelis "understand the importance of extradition problems and are committed to working with us."

Pennsylvania schools also have ongoing relationships with counterparts in Israel. Temple University in Philadelphia has a relationship with Tel Aviv University Law School, and Philadelphia’s Drexel University has a presence in Israel as well.