Leave politics out of courtIf a judicial decision raises questions over whether a particular judge made a fair ruling - or if there are accusations that the outcome was tied to political or ideological interests - the country’s judicature will lose the public’s trust and the country’s foundation of liberal democracy will be significantly undermined.
It’s clear that Ma Eun-hyeok, a judge at the Seoul Southern District Court, made a rash decision when he met with an opposition party leader just six days before issuing a decision on whether to allow or dismiss a court case involving 12 Democratic Labor Party officials.
The officials were indicted for not following National Assembly officials’ orders to quit their sit-in protest and leave the Assembly when deadly melees between ruling and opposition party lawmakers broke out while they were dealing with contentious bills in January.
Ma attended a ceremony to celebrate the publication of a book written by New Progressive Party Chairman Roh Hoe-chan, who is also a former senior official of the Democratic Labor Party, and donated 100,000 won ($86.46).
Ma and Roh knew each other after they participated in labor movements back in the 1980s.
There aren’t any regulations that bar judges from making donations to politicians, but the ethics guidelines judges abide by clearly state that they must keep political neutrality.
After the controversy over this particular judicial decision broke out, Ma said he made the visit because Roh attended funerals for some of Ma’s family members and handed him condolence money before.
Regardless of Ma’s claim, he deserves to be put in the spotlight.
He did, after all, dismiss prosecutors’ summary judgement that called for assessing a 700,000 won ($605.38) fine on the DLP officials. He also exercised his authority to refer the case to a formal trial after he met with Roh, who used to be a senior DLP official.
Judge Ma is a member of a progressive law research society that has led multiple judicial upheavals. The society is also suspected of leading a collective action for the failed attempt to overthrow Supreme Court Judge Shin Young-chul.
Judge Shin was on the brink of being ousted by opposition lawmakers over his attempts last year to influence junior judges in trials of anti-government protesters related to U.S. beef imports.
Critics have now expressed concerns that Ma’s ties with the opposition party official make him unfit to issue forth a judicial decision. A judge’s decisions shouldn’t be based on his or her personal political and ideological leanings. It’s difficult to ask all judges to retain such a mind-set, but it’s hard to argue against this point. Personal interests have no business in the courts, especially when talking about judges.
If a judge’s political feelings and beliefs lead to controversy, he or she no longer qualifies to hold the position.