Restoring credibilityPresident Lee Myung-bak nominated Yang Sung-tae, a retired Supreme Court justice, as the new chief justice to replace Lee Yong-hoon, whose six-year term ends in September.
Yang, who served 36 years on the bench, is considered a traditionalist, strict on the law and principles. His sentencing of two to five years in prison for rioters protesting a redevelopment in Yongsan district, central Seoul, which caused five deaths during a clash with police in January 2009, underscores his tough principles on justice. He was not cowed by controversy in that decision.
With such background, Yang is expected to restore authority and sovereignty to the courts and accelerate changes in the current justice system, which has been tilting toward a liberal orientation in the past few years.
The judiciary under liberal Chief Justice Lee, of course, was not without its positive achievements. Lee tried to strengthen trial procedures and the role of testimonies. He also attempted to dilute an over-reliance on prosecution investigations over court rulings. But a series of rulings that raised ideological questions has damaged the credibility of the judiciary.
The new chief justice, first of all, must ensure that the court remains neutral on ideological issues. The mixed rulings on Democratic Labor Party Representative Kang Ki-kab for staging a series of violent protests at the National Assembly and the not-guilty ruling on the producers of MBC’s controversial news program that triggered the mad cow scare created a bitter schism within the judiciary.
The lack of consistency in court rulings also shook the benches’ legal foundation and undermined public credibility in the justice system. Lower courts, for instance, differed in their rulings on political activities by unionized teachers. The new chief justice should direct judges to review cases and base their rulings on legal justice and principles rather than on personal beliefs and ideology, which is a constant phenomenon.
Yang must also take the initiative in reforming the administration of the judiciary. With the National Assembly’s plan to increase the number of justices at the Supreme Court, he needs to consider a way to enhance fairness and speed in court rulings and not consider it a challenge to the independency of the judiciary.
We hope the new chief justice, who starts his job from Sept. 25 after approval of the National Assembly, will help restore credibility and bring a gust of fresh air to our justice system.