[Outlook]Courting trustIn November 2000, the United States was sharply divided over its presidential election, held on Nov. 7. The country couldn’t decide which candidate had been elected and the Supreme Court had to rule whether there would be a recount in Florida. On Dec. 12, the court ordered that all manual counting of the ballots in Florida stop, ending a controversy that had lasted a month.
Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, won 330,000 more popular votes that the eventual winner, George W. Bush, but he accepted the court ruling and urged the people to unite.
In Korea the Constitutional Court is the final arbiter on the constitutionality of laws and legal issues.
On Mar. 12, 2004, the National Assembly passed a bill to impeach former President Roh Moo-hyun. Opponents condemned the bill, calling it a coup that violated the Constitution. Proponents, though, maintained that it was fair and within the law.
The country was sharply divided. The controversy lasted around two months before the Constitutional Court eventually dismissed the bill on May 14, the same year.
Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the Constitutional Court, and to commemorate this occasion, heads of constitutional courts around the world will meet in Seoul.
The court judges whether laws and ordinances are constitutional, and over the past two decades, it has ruled over matters and laws of political and social importance, settling conflicts and strife.
An illustrative example is the ruling in October 2005 that the special law on building a new administrative city was unconstitutional. This ruling stopped the transfer of the capital outside of Seoul, a project that the Roh administration had promoted.
During the president’s impeachment, the first case in Korea, the Constitutional Court reminded the people of the meaning of constitutionalism. Although the impeachment bill was dismissed, the ruling confirmed that even the president could get discharged from office if his conduct violates the Constitution and the law.
The Constitutional Court also ordered that laws and ordinances that might violate human rights should be changed, elevating the court’s status.
In 1997, the Constitutional Court decided that the rule that banned marriage between people with the same family name from the same birthplace was unconstitutional. In 2005, the court also decided the same regarding the patriarchy-based family registration system. In 1992, the court decided it was unconstitutional that a prisoner had to meet his lawyer with a prison guard present, improving the rights of prisoners.
The Constitutional Court’s influence is reflected in the number of cases it has dealt with. Over the past 20 years, the court has ruled that 500 of its 15,000 cases and 214 articles of law were unconstitutional.
This is a tremendous change, considering that there were only five cases ruled unconstitutional during the first 40 years of the Republic of Korea.
Witnessing these dramatic decisions, the general public has put a lot of trust in the Constitutional Court. This was revealed in a survey on the influence and trustworthiness of 25 powerful organizations in 2008. The survey was conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo and the East Asia Institute.
The Constitutional Court ranked fifth, the highest among government agencies, both in influence and trustworthiness.
However, it is too early for the Constitutional Court to rejoice. It earned only 5.75 points out of 10 in trustworthiness, far behind business conglomerates.
Why? The biggest reason is its delayed rulings over politically sensitive issues.
Last year, the National Election Commission asked then-President Roh to observe political neutrality and the president maintained that his freedom to express political opinions had been infringed. He subsequently filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court. But the court kept postponing its ruling and decided to throw out the suit in January this year after the presidential election was over.
The Constitutional Court explained that it had judged that the ruling might influence the presidential election [held last December].
However, to make it clear that the president is not allowed to intervene in the election, the ruling should have been made before full-scale campaigning started. The problem is the Constitutional Court released its ruling belatedly.
The Constitutional Court has come of age. It can’t earn the trust of the people if it fails to be free from political interests and secure political neutrality.
Discarding the practice of postponing rulings is the first step to increase trust.
*The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Sung-ho