[Viewpoint] Courts should honor common sense

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[Viewpoint] Courts should honor common sense

Several acquittals in Korea have become contentious. A decision by a judge should be able to end controversy because of the judiciary’s unique authority, but recent rulings have only served to spark controversy.

A court is supposed to weigh evidence and decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant. But when a court’s decision is reversed, it casts doubt on the whole process.

Recently, many cases that had significant social impact have been questioned. For this, I feel devastated.

A court ruling should take after the saying of Venerable Seongcheol: “A mountain is a mountain, and the water is the water.”

Judges should declare that a mountain is a mountain and the water is the water, and not the other way around. In other words, judges must not say a mountain is water because water flows through the mountain, or water is mountain because there is a reflection of the mountain on the water. That would be like the sophistry of an ancient Chinese ruler who called a deer a horse.

The controversial rulings were primary decisions, but they cannot escape criticism since they are far divorced from common sense.

In the case of lawmaker Kang Ki-Kab, many people witnessed him using violence, but he was found innocent after a court said his actions did not interfere with the operation of the National Assembly.

In the case of MBC’s “PD Diary” story on American beef, the broadcaster misrepresented downer cows as cows with mad cow disease. The episode even made young students join candlelight vigils and chant that they did not want to die. However, a court ruled that the report was exaggerated but not entirely false.

It is an exaggeration if you say something light in color is white or something that is dark gray is black.

It is a fabrication if you say something white is black or something black is white.

The program described a cow that did not have mad cow disease as a cow that did, causing great panic. How can this be only an exaggeration and not an outright fabrication?

Did the judges discover a hidden truth that the general public does not understand? Or do they intend to show that truth and justice do not always prevail and can sometimes fail? Perhaps they are trying to prove that a final decision should be reached through Hegel’s antithesis and synthesis, producing different rulings in the first, second and third trials?

Even a small child can tell what violence is. What is the child to think when a court rules that it was not violence? And even the ignorant can understand the difference between fabrication and exaggeration.

Maybe, judges are what Plato called “philosopher kings” who have wisdom that ordinary people cannot comprehend. Or maybe they are just imitating salmon swimming against the stream to go up a river and are ignoring the common sense and reasoning of the public.

A judge makes a decision according to his conscience and the law.

Here, conscience does not mean personal bias and self-righteousness. The word “conscience” originates from the Latin word, “conscientia,” meaning “to know with.” Who do you need to know with? Your rational self knows your thoughts, and you should know what other people know.

If judges make decisions as they please and speak of conscience or call criticism a threat to the independence of the judiciary, they are just being stubborn tyrants.

The latest rulings remind me of the absurd decisions that Josef K. in Kafka’s “The Trial” experienced rather than the Judgment of Solomon, where the wise king determined the true mother of a child.

A decision requires conscience of the judge not to justify his own arrogance and prejudice but to show that healthy common sense and reasoning of the society are being considered. Therefore, a decision by a judge as an individual should be in harmony with the judgment of not just other judges but also citizens with common sense.

Thus, even if a trial is decided by a single judge, he should still make his decision in the spirt of reaching a consensus. Only then can the decision conform to conscience. Extraordinary decisions that go against common sense and logic can make the existence of the judiciary branch stand out.

However, the authority of the judiciary is damaged by the aftershocks. A ruling is not just a response to the prosecutors’ indictment but an answer to the questions raised by people with healthy common sense and logic.

If the judiciary is unaware of its duty, court rulings will always be ridiculed for inconsistency.

*The writer is a professor of ethics education at Seoul National University.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


By Park Hyo-jong
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