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How is an errant Supreme Court justice disciplined?

Supreme Court justices can only be removed by impeachment or by receiving a prison sentence.

Apr 02,2009
You many have heard of the recent scandal involving new Supreme Court Justice Shin Young-chul. For those who haven’t, here is a brief summary:

Shin, who was appointed to the country’s top court in February, was the head of the Seoul Central District Court last year. Shortly after joining the Supreme Court, he came under investigation for sending e-mails to judges under his supervision in October and November. The messages advised them to expedite the trials of citizens charged with organizing street rallies in protest against the resumption of American beef imports, an issue that rocked the country last summer. When some of the judges told the press that they felt somewhat pressured by Shin’s action and felt that it infringed on the independence of their court proceedings, the Supreme Court immediately launched a fact-finding investigation.

Investigators found that aside from the e-mails, Shin made a number of phone calls and held meetings in which he told subordinate judges to speed up the trials. The trials were suspended in anticipation of a ruling from the Constitutional Court on whether the law banning outdoor nighttime demonstrations - the legal grounds for the cases against the defendants - was constitutional or not. In the end, the investigative team concluded that Shin had indeed attempted to influence the politically-sensitive trials.

Based on this, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon referred Shin’s case to the court’s ethics committee. With this decision, Shin became the first Supreme Court justice to be sent to the ethics committee. Should he step down, he will be remembered for having had the shortest term as a Supreme Court justice.

The Supreme Court is the highest and most powerful court in the land, with the sole right to uphold or reject rulings made by lower courts.

A few common questions about Supreme Court justices are: What exactly does a Supreme Court justice do? How many Supreme Court justices are there in Korea? Who selects and appoints them? Who is eligible to become a Supreme Court justice? How long do justices serve? How much are they paid?


The role of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, referred to as the court of last resort, hears appeals on rulings handed down by the High Court, the Patent Court and the appellate panels of the District Court or the Family Court in civil, criminal, administrative, patent and domestic relations cases. Therefore, the court’s rulings set precedents for the interpretation of laws, while contributing to the development of legal theory and practice in Korea.


Supreme Court composition

The Supreme Court, located in Seocho District, southern Seoul, is comprised of the chief justice and 13 other justices. The chief justice serves a non-renewable term of up to seven years, whereas other Supreme Court justices can serve up to six years, renewable. Lee Yong-hoon, the present chief justice, was appointed in September 2005 during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, so he will step down in September 2011.

The retirement age for a Supreme Court chief justice is 70; for the other justices on the court, it is 65. Even if a justice’s term has not yet expired, Supreme Court justices have to step down upon reaching the retirement age due to the age limit.

Not all of the justices take part in ruling on legal cases submitted from lower courts.

The chief justice appoints one of the 13 justices as the minister of National Court Administration, a non-adjudicatory position. Kim Yong-dam, who headed the fact-finding team in Shin’s case, is the current head of the Ministry of Court Administration. As the minister of National Court Administration, Kim is under the direction and supervision of the chief justice.

He is responsible for the general administrative affairs of the court, including conducting research on the judicial system and its policies, developing a judicial information system, managing the budget and personnel management.

The chief justice and the other 12 justices deal with adjudication.

Supreme Court justices can only be removed by impeachment or by receiving a prison sentence. This is a way of ensuring the justices can conduct fair trials without their duties being hampered by possible inappropriate influence or pressure.


Appointment procedure

When a Supreme Court justice’s term is near its end, the chief justice recommends a new justice to the president. Should the president agree, the National Assembly holds hearings to confirm the candidate’s nomination.

Not all legal professionals are eligible to become justices on the nation’s highest court. Only people who are over 40 years of age and have worked as judges, prosecutors or lawyers for more than 15 years are qualified to become Supreme Court justices.

The process of appointing a new Supreme Court justice usually takes more than 40 days. In the past, most Supreme Court positions were filled with veteran judges, but there have been some changes made in recent years.

In September 2008, Yang Chang-soo, a law professor at Seoul National University, was appointed as a Supreme Court justice, becoming the first Supreme Court justice from academia.

Ahn Dai-hee, appointed in July 2006, was a former head of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office.

Currently, there are two female Supreme Court justices, Kim Young-ran and Jeon Soo-ahn, who were appointed in August 2004 and in July 2006, respectively.


How the justices handle legal cases

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is exercised at the grand bench or at the petty bench. The grand bench is convened with more than two-thirds of all the justices with the chief justice presiding.

The chief justice only participates on the grand bench. For cases deliberated by the grand bench, decisions are made by majority vote.

A petty bench is convened with four justices. Currently, there are three petty benches. All judgments rendered by the petty bench must be made unanimously. If judges failed to make a unanimous decision, the case will be referred to the grand bench.


Change and judicial evolution

Supreme Court rulings issued in the present could well differ from rulings handed down in the past.

This is because the justices make decisions that reflect changes in Korean society. Therefore, changes in interpretations of the law are natural.

For instance, in 1976, the court found a middle school vice principal accused of slapping his student not guilty. At the time, corporal punishment was considered appropriate in Korean society.

Twenty-four years later, the court made a different decision on corporal punishment. A teacher who was tried for hitting a student, leaving an injury that would take six weeks to heal, was found guilty.

Current law allows teachers to administer appropriate corporal punishment when necessary, but what “appropriate” means is flexible, in accordance with social change.


Judicial seniority

The system of seniority for Supreme Court justices is based on a justice’s year of appointment, regardless of his or her age. But when multiple justices are appointed in the same year, the one who is the oldest gains seniority.


By Kim Seung-hyun, Park Sung-woo [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]



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