Putting rights ahead of courtsThe Constitutional Court’s overruling of a Supreme Court decision has renewed the debate: Which of the two courts has the final say in legal judgment? GS Caltex, after losing a lawsuit against national tax authorities for levying corporate taxes based on a scrapped taxation clause, appealed to the Constitutional Court. The judges unanimously agreed that the Supreme Court had violated the constitutional guidelines on taxation and judicial sovereignty by taking account of an “extraordinary case” of a legislative error. They concluded that the Supreme Court’s upholding of tax payments worth 70 billion won ($60 million) based on a clause that was scrapped in 1993 infringed on basic constitutional rights.
The collision of the two courts has a long history. In 1997, the Constitutional Court challenged the clause in the Constitutional Court Law that exempts court rulings from review, affirming that any ruling that violates basic rights should come under the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court claimed the Constitutional Court was stretching beyond its legal jurisdiction. As a result, the Supreme Court is unlikely to accept GS Caltex’s motion for retrial based on the Constitutional Court decision. The case would then return to the Constitutional Court once again.
The conflicts of the courts aggravated as the Constitutional Court’s clout increased in the years following high-profile legal decisions that included an impeachment motion against President Roh Moo-hyun. Some legislators proposed a revision in the Constitutional Court Law to reflect the court’s increasing role, but met strong opposition from the Supreme Court, which refused to go under the Constitutional Court. Their power struggle can victimize civilians as their cases go back and forth in the two courts.
Courts must place the people’s rights ahead of their interests. The laws should be revised so as to better ensure the basic rights of the people. Civilians should be able to make a final appeal at the Constitutional Court in exceptional cases where their rights have been undermined by a court ruling. But reckless resorts to the Constitutional Court could also waste national resources as the judiciary would virtually become a four-trial system. Moreover, the Constitution stipulates that the Supreme Court is the highest tribunal. The two courts should seek a way to independently and better serve the people.