[Viewpoint] Judicial reform starts with the judges

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[Viewpoint] Judicial reform starts with the judges

People are making a big deal out of court rulings these days. In Korea, politicians and even the press are stepping forward to attack the criminal verdicts of independent judges, and in the United States, President Barack Obama has announced that he will put his political life on the line and fight the Supreme Court ruling to limit campaign spending by organizations such as corporations and unions.

There’s even talk in Korea that the judge-appointment system should be revised.

And another whirlwind of judicial reform is a bitter thought.

A long time ago, my academic adviser from Germany visited the Seoul Central District Court. The professor shook his head when he saw the courthouse, and I asked him if he disliked the building. He answered that the court represents authority, and it is not good for authority to look so oppressive.

Another time, I visited the Seocho-dong Court with an elder professor from the University of Zurich. When he looked at the building, he said it looked like a missile launcher, though the judge who came out to meet us explained it was made in the image of an eagle.

I learned a good lesson from the professor when he said with a serious face, “Why does a court think of flying? A court should have its roots deep in the ground and never shake even in the strongest storm.”

The proposition that a court’s rulings should satisfy the public is absolutely right. No matter how complex or difficult the legal system and theories are, they can never justify absurd verdicts.

Recently, I was surprised to read an article that said judgments have become a hot topic of discussion. A verdict can be determined by what charges the prosecution chooses to bring, or what types of evidence are submitted by the prosecution and defense. A not-guilty verdict does not mean the defendant didn’t commit a crime, but simply that the requisites of proof were not satisfied.

Furthermore, there is the fundamental rule of law: “for the interest of the defendant when in doubt.”

This rule cannot be turned upside down. A judge can never wrongfully exercise authority and, depending on the defendant’s identity, shake a case like a housewife mixing radish kimchi.

The weaknesses in Korea’s system of appointing judges have been apparent for a long time now.

A system is necessary: After all, lightening the burden of the Supreme Court of Korea and strengthening the capacity of the lower courts are crucial to improving the efficiency of the legal system and gaining the people’s trust.

To accomplish that, some veteran prosecutors and attorneys have introduced part of the U.S. system for appointing judges, and have been operating that system for several years.

But while the political world is trying to expand the system, it seems unlikely that the effort will be successful. Korean judges are often singled out as subjects of reform, despite the great pressure their job entails. And with the continued criticism, judges are losing their pride.

Will skilled attorneys with years of experience want to become judges if it means a financial loss? This is not an undue concern. It is a problem that began to surface when experienced legal professionals began to be appointed as judges.

Before we begin to improve the system, we must be cautious and face reality.

Judges need to look inside themselves and think about why the court has become such a frequent target of reform.

They need to throw away thoughts of flying, root themselves deep in the ground, stand up straight and put their all into fair case judgments.

They must not become arrogant simply because they have the power to judge. Some court customs seem to have been established independently of the law, but judges are not lawmakers. They must faithfully and humbly follow the law.

Personal ideologies or beliefs have no place on the bench.

“The Life of the Advisor to the King” by Chinese historian Sima Guang reminds us that, “People will point at and discuss the name in the future.

“They will talk about who was faithful, who was deceitful, who was righteous and who was not.”

Is this not frightening?


*The writer is a former dean of the Seoul National University School of Law.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ho Moon-hyuk
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