Watch your words, judges

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Watch your words, judges

Lynn Leibovitz, 52-year-old associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo during a recent visit to Seoul that if U.S. judges expressed their personal views on the Occupy Wall Street protests, they would immediately be subject to disciplinary action for violating their ethics code. “Whether in public or private settings, judges have to be prudent when they express their own ideas about politically sensitive issues,” she said. She was here to participate in an international conference hosted by the Supreme Court.

During the conference, Jean-Pierre Bonthoux, a 50-year-old prosecutor from France, concurred with her view. He said that in France, which allows collective actions by a judges’ union, judges seldom express their own political perspectives on social disputes, though they sometimes comment on the executive branch’s legislative efforts. He added that a judge who had written a book critical of President Nicolas Sarkozy received an official reprimand for his action.

Both the judge and the prosecutor said that apart from the potential breach of ethics codes, a judge’s reputation is itself a fatal flaw if he or she maintains a biased view on a particular issue.

Judge Leibovitz said that though there are no rules banning judges from using social networking services, they often do not use them because they are afraid of the potentially negative impact on their work. Prosecutor Bonthoux chimed in, stressing that French judges confine themselves to posting news articles or columns on cases with which they have dealt.

The judicial profession requires a high level of prudence. In this country, however, a heated controversy has been going for more than two weeks since Choi Eun-bae, a senior judge in the Incheon District Court, posted a message criticizing the Korea-U.S. trade pact on his Facebook page. Despite a stern warning from Yang Seung-tae, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, another judge went so far as to post outspoken and derogatory remarks about President Lee Myung-bak.

Against this backdrop, it may be too much for us to expect judges to voluntarily restrict their freedom of speech, let alone achieve a more refined use of words. Our expectation that they will be more discreet stems from our belief that judges are the ones who make final judgments on social conflicts. It is, however, worrisome if ordinary citizens eagerly accept their rulings, even after they have turned out to be extremely light-minded in dealing with social discord.
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