The Supreme Court of Korea: The ‘flowers of the judiciary’The Supreme Court will welcome five new judges on July 11. All five justices nominated to fill vacancies in the 13-member Supreme Court won the National Assembly’s approval in voting by the legislators on June 30.
Lee Young-hun, the court’s chief justice, sent his choices from among 15 people recommended by a selection committee to fill the vacancies earlier in June. The five nominees include the chief judges of four district courts: Lee Hong-hoon of the Seoul Central District Court, Park Ill-hwan of the Seoul Western District Court, Kim Neung-hwan of the Ulsan District Court and Chon Soo-an of the Gwangju District Court. The fifth nominee is Ahn Dae-hee, the head of the Seoul High Prosecutors Office.
In addition to the Constitutional Court, Korea has a Supreme Court, High Courts, District Courts, a Patent Court, a Family Court and an Administrative Court. The District, High and Supreme Courts form the basic three-tier system, according to the Supreme Court. Other courts exercise specialized functions, with the Patent Court positioned on the same level as the High Courts; the Family Court and the Administrative Court are on the same level as the District Courts.
As the court of last resort, the Supreme Court hears appeals from judgments or rulings rendered by all lower courts in civil, criminal, administrative, patent and domestic relations cases.
It also has the authority to review rulings rendered by Korean military courts.
In addition, it has exclusive jurisdiction to rule on the validity of presidential and legislative elections.
The Supreme Court has final appellate jurisdiction, and it either upholds or overrules lower court rulings, and its verdicts sets judicial precedent.
The court also has the power to dismiss an appeal, when the grounds for appeal are considered not sufficient under the law. The court can then dismiss the appeal without further delving into the case, and the reasons for the dismissal need not be stated. However, this does not apply to criminal appeals.
The full panel of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice, comprises 13 members.
Under Article 104 of the Constitution, the chief justice of the Supreme Court is appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. The 12 justices that make up the rest of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president, who retains veto power, upon the recommendation of the chief justice. The president makes the final nominations, which must be confirmed by the National Assembly. The lawmakers have been holding confirmation hearings since 2002.
To become chief justice or a judge of the Supreme Court, one must be at least 40 years old and must be an attorney at law. The candidate should also have 15 years or more of professional experience in the legal community as a judge, prosecutor, lawyer or professor of law. However, in practice, the roles are usually awarded to senior judges.
A Supreme Court justice is known as a “flower of the judiciary,” and many judges aspire to the position. The Supreme Court makes the final ruling on legal issues and its members represent the judiciary.
There are three levels in the organizational hierarchy of the courts: the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the lower courts.
The term of office of the chief justice is six years without reappointment. The justices of the Supreme Court also serve six-year terms but may be reappointed. Their retirement age is set at 65.
Although it is possible to serve a second term, most of Korea’s Supreme Court judges have declined the opportunity. In the history of the nation’s legal community, only three judges have served two terms in the Supreme Court; one of them was Lee Hoi-chang, the former chairman of the Grand National Party.
It normally takes 30 years for a career judge, serving at district courts and high courts, to become a Supreme Court justice. In a recent trend, however, outside experts have been appointed to the panel in order to diversify its members. Park Si-hwan, a current Supreme Court justice, began practicing as a lawyer in 2003 after serving as the Seoul Central District Court’s chief justice. He was named to the Supreme Court last year as an “expert from outside the court system.”
A Supreme Court justice is a minister-level official and receives a monthly salary of 7.8 million won ($8,230). He or she is assigned an aide and a car.
Supreme Court justices hold a position of great honor, but also a heavy workload; they handle a large number of cases. Last year alone, each Supreme Court justice handled 1,563 cases, far higher than the average number of cases, 87, handled annually by a U.S. Federal Court judge.
Reforms aimed at improving Korea’s judicial system
Korea’s judicial system has been seeking to improve its quality through various reform measures. Spearheading the effort is a judicial reform committee formed in October 2003 with representatives from the legal, political, legislative, media, labor, business, women’s, human rights and civic communities. The committee has reviewed reforms in five major areas, including the organizational and functional reform of the Supreme Court, the judicial appointment system and public participation in the judicial process.
In 2004 the chief justice of the Supreme Court proposed to launch an initiative to reform the judicial system to reflect new trends in Korean society.
by Ser Myo-ja