Order in the court

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Order in the court

The Supreme Court said this week that three-judge panels will preside over socially sensitive criminal cases amid growing criticism over a string of controversial rulings by liberal-minded individual judges.

It also reportedly is mulling seating a single judge with at least 10 years of bench experience to preside individually over certain high-profile criminal trials, though a Supreme Court official said this week that the plan is unrealistic.

The changes aim to bring weight to the verdicts doled out in trials that have social repercussions. A ruling by a three-judge panel, the thinking goes, likely wouldn’t face the same criticisms that a verdict made by one judge would, helping to avoid controversy. Same goes for a verdict handed down from an experienced judge.

But if reforms stop here, public mistrust in the judiciary system will not be eased.

The judges who raised a storm by acquitting Kang Ki-kab - the head of the minority Democratic Labor Party - on charges of obstruction of justice and producers of MBC’s news program on charges of distorting facts regarding mad cow disease all had more than 10 years of experience on the bench.

The judges that handed down a chain of controversial verdicts that overruled precedent cases and were at odds with public sentiment range in age from their 30s to their early 40s. They have been handling trials anywhere from five to 15 years. They receive cases through a computerized draw, a system that they demanded after last year’s case involving Supreme Court Justice Shin Young-chul. Since then, the judge on the bench has had complete control over cases on the grounds of “trial independence,” which in fact creates a higher likelihood of bias in court rulings.

“High-profile” and “socially sensitive” criminal cases should best be scrutinized and determined by a panel of three judges instead of one. If three judges discuss and reach agreement on a case, the verdict has much more credibility.

There remains the problem of what exactly defines a “socially sensitive” case, which may give rise to another fiery debate. But a controversy down the road can be avoided if the term is defined through a general consensus. The allocation of cases should also be improved. Cases should be appropriated to judges according to bench experience.

The court must keep in mind that the people expect a certain level of consistency and predictability in courtrooms.
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