Ethics committee defers ruling on anti-FTA judge

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Ethics committee defers ruling on anti-FTA judge

The Supreme Court’s public ethics committee deferred ruling on whether a sitting judge violated the judiciary’s ethics code after he posted on his personal Facebook profile a message critical of the recent ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

Instead, the committee said it would issue guidelines for government officials using social networking services in light of the ongoing controversy. The ethics code requires judges to remain politically neutral to ensure impartiality.

Choi Eun-bae, 45, a senior judge on the Incheon District Court, received public attention for what many considered a daring move by a sitting judge after he wrote on his Facebook profile that the Nov. 22 ratification of the FTA amounted “to a sell-off of our country and working-class people by the president and his economic bureaucrats, who are pro-American to the bone.”

The message was subsequently re-posted on many others’ Facebook profiles, and the number of Choi’s followers on his Twitter account shot up to 25,000 from just 30 followers before he posted the message.

The public ethics committee, which met at the Supreme Court in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, said it was withholding from making a ruling on Choi until it gathered more information. Instead, the committee agreed to issue specific guidelines for government officials, which it will do at a later date.

In the meantime, the committee warned judges to be careful in their SNS use.

“Judges should be aware that their personal opinions and behavior can be considered by the public to be the judiciary’s official opinion,” said Lee Tae-soo, chairman of the public ethics committee. “Judges should not produce any opinions that could affect running fair trials, and they should not be embroiled in any sensitive social or political issues.”

Some committee members said that Choi had clearly violated the ethics code, in particular clauses No. 4 and No. 7, which state that government officials should perform their duties sincerely and remain politically neutral, because Choi had criticized government policy. Others, however, defended Choi, saying that his Facebook posting did not criticize specific legal cases and that it should be considered a personal opinion on a social issue.

Separately, many judges have also weighed in on the controversy over Choi’s Facebook positing.

“It’s very inappropriate,” a judge on the Seoul High Court said. “What if Judge Choi takes a case related to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in the future? We can’t say it’s a fair trial.”

Other critics pointed out that sitting judges could not express biased political views on pending government issues because their opinions have a stronger ripple effect than average members of the public.

Other judges have come out in Choi’s support, including Judge Lee Jeong-ryeol of the Changwon District Court in South Gyeongsang. Lee expressed his support through Facebook, writing: “I just finished watching a comedy program, and I envy those comedians because they can express whatever they want,” and “I’ll keep using [Facebook] no matter what happens.”

Lee also posted a message criticizing the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, writing sarcastically, “This is a politically biased message: Dear president and lawmakers who passed the Korea-U.S. FTA for the two countries’ security, I respect you all. You just saved the country!”

Both Lee and Choi’s postings on their Facebook profiles have garnered media attention because both judges are members of an association of liberal judges called the Research Society on Our Laws. Choi is chairman of the organization. The Supreme Court added that many Facebook messages criticizing the public ethics committee were written by several members of the liberal association last week.

The association was founded in 1989 and was once considered to be the nation’s most influential judiciary group, with several of their members appointed to high-ranking positions, including Kang Kum-sil, a former minister of justice, and Park Si-hwan, a former Supreme Court justice.

The association, which once had more than 130 members, has seen its roster decline by half since the Supreme Court investigated judiciary associations last year after public criticism of biased rulings in several cases.

Choi, however, told the JoongAng Ilbo that he was a member of many other private law associations and that his opinions on the FTA did not reflect his associations’ opinion as a whole.

By Lee Dong-hyun, Kwon Sang-soo []
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