Judges out of controlOur judges’ public remarks about the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement are not dying down. Following earlier statements by some judges on social network services, Kim Ha-neul, a senior judge of the Incheon District Court, posted a radical message on the court’s online bulletin board in which he proposed to “establish a task force inside the court which would study the feasibility of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISD) clause of the pact,” because, he wrote, the FTA “infringes on our judicial sovereignty.” Since then, over 100 judges across the country have posted comments sympathizing with the judge.
There is nothing wrong with judges having internal debates on a particular issue as individual citizens. But overt expressions of their personal views on a politically volatile issue is not appropriate as it could damage their neutrality as judges. It could also diminish ordinary citizens’ trust in the courts.
Judges not only have a responsibility to maintain political neutrality but should also be prudent in their words and actions. No citizen would expect a judge - who frequently makes political remarks and openly expresses his or her personal views - to rule over trials in a fair manner. Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae urged judges to act discreetly, admonishing them not to confuse their personal convictions for their judicial consciences.
Judges’ advertising their opinions on an international agreement, which has gone through a ratification process in the National Assembly and been signed by the president, is extremely inappropriate in terms of the principle of separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state. Judges determine if a party in a pact violates the agreement. They don’t judge the laws or treaties the legislature or the administration has made.
That’s why our Constitution grants the president the right to conclude a pact with other countries and gives the legislative body the right to examine and approve it. Only when a breach of a pact becomes an issue do courts - and judges - get involved. Therefore, it is preposterous for the judicial branch to demand an internal task force to review the trade deal.
Kim asserted that the courts should have the ultimate right to interpret the Korea-U.S. FTA on the grounds that it is also a kind of contract. Such a mindset violates the principle of separation of powers and stems from the false idea that the judicial branch is superior. Judges should express their convictions in rulings alone.