Final Supreme Court spot opportunity for diversity

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Final Supreme Court spot opportunity for diversity

Following the National Assembly’s confirmation, President Lee Myung-bak yesterday formally appointed three new Supreme Court justices, allowing them to begin their duties immediately.

With Lee signing off on the appointments, the Supreme Court’s stalled operation is expected to be normalized quickly, although one vacancy is yet to be filled.

Of the 14 Supreme Court justices, 13 including Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae perform adjudicatory roles.

Justice Cha Han-sung works as minister of the National Court Administration and handles general administrative affairs for the court.

A look into the profiles of the 13 justices of the court including the three new ones shows that the top court’s bench is dominated by graduates from Seoul National University Law School.

They are also mostly men in their 50s and almost all of them have experience serving at the Ministry of National Court Administration and heading lower courts. Chief Justice Yang, 64, is the eldest member of the Supreme Court. The other 12 are in their 50s.

While their hometowns vary, 11 of the 13 studied law at Seoul National University. Four of them were classmates who entered the university in 1974. Kim Chang-suk, whose confirmation was approved yesterday, graduated from Korea University Law School.Park Poe-young, 51, studied law at Hanyang University. Park is also the only female judge on the Supreme Court bench and one of the few without experience working at the Ministry of National Court Administration.

The Supreme Court is also now filled with judges who began their terms after the Lee Myung-bak administration was launched in February 2008. Cha began his term in March 2008 and is the longest serving member of the court. Yang, the chief justice, was appointed to his position in September of last year.

While all of them were appointed during the Lee presidency, Yang only made recommendations for five justices, including the three confirmed yesterday. The rest were recommended by Yang’s predecessor Lee Yong-hoon, who headed the Supreme Court from September 2005 to September 2011. Concerns have been raised in the legal community that the Supreme Court has lost its diversity.

Since Kim Young-ran, the first female justice, was appointed in 2004 during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the Supreme Court has taken steps to improve its diversity. In 2005, Park Si-hwan, a liberal lawyer, and Kim Ji-hyung, a labor law expert, took office, and two more liberal-centrist justices joined the court in 2006.

While the five justices contributed significantly to dilute the conservative leanings of the top court, by last month they had all retired. Since then, their vacancies have been filled with candidates who share similar backgrounds and philosophies. Observers analyzed that the choices reflect the beliefs of Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang.

In a media conference in September last year when he took office, Yang stressed stability and expertise over diversity. “It is important for the Supreme Court to have a diversified look,” Yang said at the time. “But 36,000 cases are tried at the Supreme Court every year, and we need justices with exceptional legal knowledge and experience.”

Concerns, however, were seen that the Supreme Court would go back to where it was eight years ago. “We need justices who see the world with different perspectives,” said Chang Young-soo, law professor at the Korea University. “Only then, the Supreme Court can serve as a channel to reflect the interests of the minorities.”

Kim Jong-cheol, professor at the Yonsei University Law School, agreed. “Legal expertise is crucial for a Supreme Court justice,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be someone with a perfect 100 score. Even if he or she has scored 90 points, the justice should be someone with various experiences and a wide worldview.”

And the rulings handed down by the Supreme Court recently show that the like-minded justices appeared to have no difficulty making decisions.

Since Yang became chief justice, the court handed down 23 rulings after 13-member full panel trials, but they rarely prompted controversy. In June, the court ruled in favor of the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island, and only two justices issued minority opinions by opposing it.

The Supreme Court begun the process of selecting a new candidate to fill the last vacancy after the scandal-embroiled candidate Kim Byung-hwa gave up his nomination. The ruling and opposition parties have demanded that the new nominee be a woman. The number of female justices in the top court went down from two to one after Justice Jeon Soo-ahn’s retirement.

National Court Administration Minister Cha told the National Assembly last week that the court will take the request seriously. “We cannot just appoint someone because she is a female candidate,” Cha said. “But after Yang took office as Supreme Court chief justice, his first appointment was a female justice, Park, and we are paying a lot of attention to female judges.”

To ensure diversity on the Supreme Court bench, experts said it is necessary to reform the nomination process. “The nomination committee should have more outside members,” said Han Sang-hie, a law professor at Konkuk University. “A civic group member can be included in the committee or the committee can be formed with members recommended from outside institutions such as the National Assembly.”

By Ser Myo-ja, Lee Dong-hyun [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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