[Viewpoint] Authority that’s right and just

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[Viewpoint] Authority that’s right and just

What fundamentally upholds authority? It’s not physical force or the law - it’s the person wielding it.

When President Roh Moo-hyun was weakened politically, so was his authoritative mandate.

President Lee Myung-bak was likewise challenged when hundreds took to the streets in protest of American beef imports. His authority took a beating because he failed to safeguard law and order. But he stood his ground firmly against street protests, restoring his authoritative legitimacy.

National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyung-o also saw his authority at risk when opposition legislators stormed into his chamber to protest the ruling party’s move to pass a free trade pact with the U.S. But he held fast in his seat and protected his authority.

The authority of the chief justice of the Supreme Court is no different. He has to uphold the authority of his position as well as that of the judiciary.

During his confirmation hearing in September 2005, then-chief justice nominee Lee Yong-hoon said he had expressed opposition to the existence of the Society for Research on Our Law, a private research group of young progressive justices. He had advised senior members of the group to drop out “as it doesn’t look proper for senior justices to mingle socially with younger counterparts.”

The chief justice, however, did not live up to his words. Senior members still have a vital role in the group. Oh Jae-seong, chairman of the group, is a senior justice of the Suwon District Court, and Moon Hyung-bae, a former chairman, is a senior justice at the Busan District Court. The chief justice has the power to appoint the justices of lower courts. Yet he failed to wield that power to counter a threat he admitted was dangerous before the people. He may not have had either the will or the power to do so.

He once labeled the group “an organization that should not exist at the court.” Yet the group has burgeoned since Lee took office. Former group head Moon Hyung-bae welcomed Lee, saying it was good a chief justice who many of the members supported had been approved, adding “He will add valuable members to our group.”

Under the current chief justice, the practice of law in our society has become confused, not only because of recent upsets such as the overruling of cases against minority opposition party head Kang Ki-kab, a local branch of the teachers’ union and a TV news program all charged with defaming the government authority.

While soft on liberal groups, Lee’s line of judges has been comparatively harsh on the conservative elite. Financial officials such as Byeong Yang-ho, once at the Finance Ministry; former Korea Development Bank Deputy Governor Park Sang-bae, and former head of KDB Capital Lee Seung-geon, were accused of accepting bribes to pressure creditors to ease the debts of Hyundai Motor Group affiliates, and they were confined to prison for months until the Supreme Court cleared their names.

None of the activists arrested for orchestrating the street protests against American beef imports were imprisoned. If someone breaks the law, that person should be punished according to the law regardless of his or her status. But the law must be just and equal in its punishment.

In December 2000, Florida found itself at the center of a storm after a disputed ballot count that would end up determining the winner of the presidential election.

U.S. Democratic candidate Al Gore requested a recount, and the Florida Supreme Court called for a hand recount. A month after Election Day, the country slipped further into the abyss when the new ballot count showed an even smaller leading margin for candidate George W. Bush. Then, in a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to the hand recount to the shock of Gore supporters, concluding in a per curiam decision that the Florida balloting method had been unconstitutional. It effectively resolved the national split on election results.

Gore could still have been the president if the recount had continued. Yet he complied with the Supreme Court’s decision.

At the time, the U.S. chief justice was William Rehnquist. He was one of the longest-serving chief justices in history, seated for nearly 19 years. He is known to have cemented a conservative ideology and moderate balance in the court without upsetting the liberal justices. Nobody questioned the authority of the Rehnquist Court because no justices and lower courts under his leadership had overstretched or limited judicial authority.

Authority is legitimized and unquestioned when the exercise of power is right and just.

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

by Kim Jin
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