[Viewpoint] The exit of ‘Ms. Minority Voice’The name Jeon Soo-ahn may not ring a bell for most people. The 60-year-old justice, one of only two women to have worked on the 13-member Supreme Court, retired this week, drawing to a close her 34-year career on the bench. She is the second Korean female justice after Kim Young-ran, who retired in 2010. Jeon joined the highest court two years after Kim, who inadvertently stole the spotlight by virtue of beating her to the punch.
Jeon broke her silence about life on the bench last month in a small ceremony commemorating her memoir and her illustrious career in the law. She talked about how she was treated as an outsider, snubbed in reshuffles because of her gender in a male-dominated system and for disobeying orders in an entrenched hierarchy, and also how she refused to issue warrants in some cases in navigating the bureaucracy, and the reasons behind those decisions.
“I began to turn my gaze toward minority groups and the underprivileged, as I found myself in a position to relate to them given that I represented a minority myself in a court mostly comprised of male judges,” she said.
“Looking back, I’m grateful for this disadvantage, however, because it made me more sensitive to, and passionate about, people’s individual rights.” She said she could barely fathom the kind of injustices meted out to ordinary people in society, given that someone in her prestigious position was treated so unfairly.
The turning point in her career came when she began judging cases of juvenile delinquency at a family court at the age of 35. “The heartbreaking and desperate stories that pushed poor people and their children to acts of crime came as a shock to someone like me, who had taken life’s comforts for granted. I felt despair and frustration at our society. I thought long and hard about what to do with the court if its primary role is to serve the people. I decided that I must not make quick and easy judgments that affect people’s hopes and dreams just by reciting court precedents. I may not have been able to empathize completely with their lives, but at least I tried to understand them. I believed such efforts were required of all the judiciary.”
Jeon said she was often haunted, or guided, by a guilty conscience stemming from her sense of indebtedness to those less fortunate than herself. After she joined the Supreme Court in July 2006, a team of five radicals was created at the highest tribunal. This group was made up of five liberal-minded justices, including the woman appointed under the former Roh Moo-hyun administration. They caused a stir and much debate among the traditionally conservative Supreme Court Council, and were seen as a progressive, if troublesome, group railing for the disadvantaged.
In her retirement address, Jeon said she hoped to be remembered for her individual rulings, rather than as one of the five radicals.
While chairing a council meeting last month, she helped set a new Supreme Court ruling granting veteran benefits to the families of soldiers who take their own lives. In the ruling, she said a mature society should not view those who commit suicide during their mandatory military service as “freaks” with innate emotional problems. Moreover, she said the state has a moral duty to comfort and compensate their families for their loss.
With the exit of “Ms. Minority Voice,” the Supreme Court, largely comprised of elite and mainstream male judges, may lose its sense of balance and tilt back to the right. If the court of last resort loses its sensitivity and empathy for minorities, weak members of society could end up feeling they have to take the law into their own hands.
In her farewell speech, Jeon said: “In this part of the world, we often hear that justice is only half of the pie. But if we do not defend that half at least, what will become of this world?” She ended her speech by quoting writer Kim Hoon’s epitaph for mountaineer Reinhold Messner: “He climbed higher after winning the battle against himself. He wept and turned back when he could not ascend any more.”
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kwon Suk-chun