[EDITORIALS]Does Politics Stand Above the Law?

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[EDITORIALS]Does Politics Stand Above the Law?

The delayed trials and wrist-slap punishments for candidates and their aides charged with violating election laws during last year's campaign are indications that politics stands above the law. Almost a year has gone by since the election and yet not a single appeals case has been resolved. At this pace, when these cases will be resolved fully is anyone's guess.

There are a total of 70 cases in which 54 candidates and their family members or aides were indicted on charges of violating election laws. Not even initial trials on 35, or half, of the cases have been completed. Of the remaining 35 cases for which rulings have been handed down, only eight people received punishments equivalent to the loss of parliamentary seats - fines of more than 1 million won ($740) in the cases of candidates themselves and punishments harsher than probation in the cases of family members and aides. Since the appeals that these eight people have filed are still pending, whether any of the indicted will eventually be punished remains in doubt.

There is a national consensus on strictly punishing violators of election laws. Doing so is the only way to clean up Korea's tainted campaign practices. The court's and prosecutors' pledge before the election to strictly punish election law violators should be regarded as a promise to the Korean people. The primary responsibility for the slow pace of prosecution, therefore, should fall on the court. It may not be too extreme to call the slow review of the cases dereliction of duty by the judiciary. How can lawmakers avoid appearing in court by saying they have to conduct legislative activities when the trials are about their status as legislators?

The court should not let the lawmakers slide by when their intention is to prolong their trials until their terms are completed. While it is important to respect the dignity of each lawmaker, a plan needs to be devised to require them to appear in court on public interest grounds. For example, they should be required to disclose the reasons for their absence and the court should issue arrest warrants to lawmakers who dodge. Light sentences are also a concern. Acknowledging election law violations while handing down light sentences so that lawmakers can keep their jobs does not amount to anything. The court's lenient judgments encourage the sentiment that winning the election is everything, no matter what means are used to attain that goal. The court will not be able to avoid criticism if election law violations become more heated and corrupt because its lenient sentences make people contemptuous of the law and casual about violating it.

A fairness issue can also arise. The opposition Grand National Party asserts that more of the ruling party lawmakers have been indicted than those of the opposition and that for similar violations, opposition lawmakers receive harsher punishments. The assertion is supported by the fact that of the eight people who received sentences equivalent to the loss of parliamentary seats, five are members of the opposition and three are from the ruling party. It is also true that lawmakers from the Kyongsang provinces tend to get heavier punishment. Balanced law implementation is necessary to prevent criticism for unfairness.

Delayed trials, light sentences and fairness debates continue to come up after every election. In a nation where the separation of powers is preserved, it is the judiciary's responsibility to revise the distorted campaign practices and check the legislature through strict implementation of the law. It is believed that the tainted political community can be cleaned up by a properly functioning judiciary.
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