[Outlook]Salvaging trust in the judiciary

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[Outlook]Salvaging trust in the judiciary

Most people feel that the judiciary has its flaws and problems. But they still trust it. It still has a reputation for being better than the legislature, which they associate with violence-prone lawmakers and a corruption-riddled administration.

But that trust is now at risk because of the recent scandal over e-mails that Supreme Court Justice Shin Young-chul sent last year to junior judges regarding the trials of protesters in illegal rallies.

The scandal is both complicated and sensitive, as it reveals conflicts in our society and divisions in the judiciary. It’s easier to understand the whole matter when we look at it from a broader perspective and over a longer time frame, and try to find the essence of the matter.

The scandal can be divided into two primary conflicts.

The first is the one caused by differences in political perspectives of the progressives and the conservatives.

The second conflict comes from the gap between ideal and reality regarding the independence of the judiciary.

These are two sides of the same coin. Progressives, who in general look positively on candlelight vigils, usually pursue the ideal of full independence of the judiciary.

The conservatives, on the other hand, have a realistic view and emphasize the hierarchy within the judiciary.

Shin, who was serving as head of the Seoul Central District Court when he sent the e-mails in question, has a conservative perspective and therefore a negative view of candlelight rallies. He’s a realistic person who believes that administrative guidelines are necessary, such as when dealing with the issue of the independence of the judiciary.

Probably for this reason, he sent e-mails to judges at the Seoul Central District Court containing guidelines that could have led to bad results for protesters involved in the rallies. As the head of the court, he must have thought he was within his rights to supervise trials. Inside the court system, administrative acts of this kind have never been an issue before.

On the other hand, lawyer Park Jae-young, the former Seoul Central District Court judge who sparked the scandal, has a progressive viewpoint and sympathizes with the protesters. As regards the independence of the judiciary, he is an idealist who strictly shuns any influence from the outside.

He said in the court that he had the same feeling that a father would have for his children when it came to the protesters.

He resigned, probably because he wanted to express his solidarity and strong convictions on the matter. It is said that he had gone through agony but was confident that he behaved according to his religious beliefs and his conscience.

Neither Shin nor Park is alone. Many senior judges in the court system share Shin’s perspective, while younger judges in general agree with Park’s ideas. Political perspectives regarding candlelight vigils are sharply divided and so are views on the judiciary’s independence.

When the whole scenario is viewed from a broader perspective, the divisions within the judiciary are deep-rooted. They began to surface in 2003, possibly before that.

Right after the Roh Moo-hyun administration was launched, young judges protested over the appointments of judges. They claimed that all the candidates for justices were conservatives.

President Roh and then-Justice Minister Kang Gum-sill agreed. They promised judicial reforms and recommended the laywer Park Si-hwan, who led a scholarly group consisting of progressive judges, as a justice. After Park, judges with progressive views were appointed one after another. Conservative judges say that since then, dialogue has disappeared from within the court.

In some ways, the current scandal revisits what happened in 2003. The 2003 scandal prompted the judiciary to turn progressive in order to be in line with the political party in power at the time, which had turned leftward.

The current scandal can be seen as an attempt to deter the judiciary from becoming conservative, which just so happened to take place when political power reverted back toward the right.

Regardless of whether Shin and Park had such intentions, that’s how their actions will be viewed.

Even if a judge acts according to the law, he inevitably has his own political inclinations.

As things now stand, the ultimate measure to protect the independence of the judiciary is to show its ability to self-regulate and heal its own wounds.

The 2003 scandal ended with discussions inside the judiciary. I hope that the current case will also end with self-analysis and measures to prevent negative side effects from happening. I still want to trust the judiciary.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byoung-sang
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