Separation of politics and courtsSince its birth in 1988, the Constitutional Court has set the direction for the course of Korean society. The public has increasingly turned to the high court after it built a reputation on covering significant political, economic and social issues. It is why the society has been waiting with keen interest to see who will be the next chief.
President Lee Myung-bak named former Constitutional Court justice Lee Dong-heub to replace incumbent Lee Kang-kook, whose term ends on Jan. 21. The Blue House said in a statement that the nominee demonstrated a strong will to uphold the free democracy constitution. He would be the first Constitutional Court justice to head the court as all others came from the Supreme Court. But a question of favoritism could rise because Lee is a native of Daegu in North Gyeongsang, where both President Lee and President-elect Park Geun-hye are from. He also has been among conservative voices in key constitutional court rulings. The main opposition Democratic United Party opposes his nomination, suggesting his endorsement won’t be easy.
The question of favoritism has been underscored because the president-elect repeatedly emphasized balanced recruitment in government offices. It could be considered Park’s first appointment. But the choice won’t honor her pledge to recruit fairly across regions, generations and gender “to demonstrate the true 100 percent of our people.” The incumbent government has been criticized for naming senior court judges and prosecutors in the Constitutional Court and a conservative chief justice would push the highest court further to the right.
Once the new chief justice is endorsed, the Constitutional Court will enter its fifth term. In interviews, Lee said legal stability should be the court’s highest priority. “To change past legal precedents is not the role of the Constitutional Court. A society can be unsettled if it is led and shaken by a judiciary branch,” he said. He is not entirely wrong. But if the Constitutional Court doesn’t listen to diverse corners of society, it can undermine security. Judges should maintain their professional convictions, but must check that they have not neglected other voices in their reviews and judgments.
Every era requires a different role from the courts. The fifth Constitutional Court is required to fix social fissures while protecting diversity and unity. There is no unity without diversity. The political sector should try to settle differences without shoving its problems on the Constitutional Court. Politicians should focus on questioning the candidate’s qualifications instead of using the confirmation hearing to promote self-interests.