Politics and public view may influence justices
The political propensity and tenure of the Constitutional Court justices are expected to be a key factor in their deliberation of the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. The landslide parliamentary approval of the impeachment motion and public sentiment will also affect the justices when making public their rulings on the impeachment.
According to the Constitutional Court Act’s Article 23, the full bench, composed of nine justices, is required to review the impeachment case with the attendance of seven or more justices. A vote of six or more justices is required in case of an impeachment, the article also says.
All nine judges of the Constitutional Court were appointed during the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. President Park Han-chul and Justices Seo Ki-seog and Cho Yong-ho were appointed by President Park.
Justices Lee Jin-sung and Kim Chang-jong were chosen by Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae during the Lee administration. Justice Ahn Chang-ho was selected by the ruling Saenuri Party. Justice Kang Il-won was named based on the agreement of the ruling and opposition parties.
Justice Lee Jung-mi was appointed in 2011 by then Supreme Court Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon, who took the office during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Justice Kim Yi-su was appointed by the opposition party.
Analyses into the judges’ major rulings and personal histories show that Justices Kang Il-won, Kim Yi-su and Lee Jung-mi are centrist or liberal, while the rest six are considered conservative.
The Constitutional Court has been considered generally conservative. Its ruling in December 2014 to dismantle the Unified Progressive Party was considered one of the conservative decisions.
In 2004, the court also spent 62 days to deliberate on the country’s first-ever presidential impeachment against Roh Moo-hyun. At the time, Roh was impeached after asking voters to support his party in the general election, an appeal that the National Election Commission had ruled a violation of election law. The court said he did violate the law, but the crime was not grave enough for him to be impeached.
Some legal experts, however, say political tendencies of the judges will not likely affect the Park impeachment case this time, as it is not about her political or ideological stance, but about constitutional order.
Differently from the Roh case, the individual opinion of the each justice will also be made public this time, and possibilities are high that the judges will consider public sentiment when making the ruling. After the Constitutional Court Act was revised in 2005, all minority opinions are supposed to be stated in all rulings.
The tenure of the judges is also a key factor. The term of the chief justice, Park Han-chul, will expire on Jan. 31, 2017. Justice Lee Jung-mi will serve as the acting president of the court, but Lee’s tenure will also end on March 13, 2017. If no successors are named, the court will have to review the case with eight justices starting Feb. 1, 2017 and then with seven starting from March 14, 2017.
Filling the vacancy will not be easy. “The person with the power to appoint a Constitutional Court chief justice is the president, but Park’s powers are suspended,” said a Constitutional Court official. “Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn may try to name the successor as the acting president, but the opposition parties may not cooperate in the process.”
If the court’s deliberation continues after March 13, 2017, the possibility of upholding the impeachment will get slim, because six out of seven justices must support it.
BY SER MYO-JA, SONG SEUNG-HWAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]