Constitutional Court on brink of limbo

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Constitutional Court on brink of limbo

The Constitutional Court is expected to fall into limbo when its acting chief completes his term and retires from the post on Friday.

Song Doo-hwan, who has been a justice of the court since March 2007, has served as acting chief justice since Jan. 28 after the legislature failed to approve a new chief justice.

When Lee Kang-kook retired from his chief justice post in January, then-President Lee Myung-bak nominated Lee Dong-heub for the role in consultation with Park Geun-hye. The controversial nominee withdrew Feb. 13 amid accusations that he mishandled expenses as a court justice.

The court was operating with eight justices, but Song’s scheduled departure will leave two vacancies on the nine-member panel.

Since its establishment in 1988, the Constitutional Court has never stopped operating, but there has been speculation that it could be paralyzed if two vacancies are created.

Under the law, the court can still make a ruling if seven justices participate in a trial. But to rule a case unconstitutional requires at least six justices to agree.

In an attempt to allay concerns in the legal community, the Constitutional Court said it will move up by a week the regular sentencing that normally takes place on the last Thursday of the month. So this month’s sentencing will be announced Thursday.

“We made the adjustment because we need to rule on cases with eight judges before Song’s retirement,” said a court official.

Sources at the court also said verdicts on cases that are socially or politically sensitive won’t be decided on this month.

The court also withheld verdicts last month because the announcements were to be made after Lee Kang-kook’s departure as chief justice.

It isn’t the first time the court has seen a vacancy in its nine-judge panel, but it will be unprecedented for the court to have two empty seats.

In 2006, the court operated with eight justices for about 140 days after the legislature failed to agree on the nomination of Jeon Hyo-sook as chief justice.

The court was also left one justice short for 14 months as the ruling and opposition parties battled over the nomination of Cho Yong-hwan.

“It will be a tragedy that the court will face a crisis with two vacancies,” said a senior researcher at the court.

The Korea Bar Association also issued a statement March 7 criticizing the legislature and administration for disrupting the court’s operation over political infighting.

“We express strong regret that the president and the legislature have failed to fulfill their duties,” the association said. “If the Constitutional Court isn’t quickly normalized, we will start a nationwide movement by contacting civic groups and the people to ensure basic constitutional rights. We urge the president to make a bold decision to normalize the Constitutional Court.”

Representative Jung Chung-rae of the Democratic United Party said Saturday he has sponsored a bill to revise the law governing the Constitutional Court to prevent a recurrence of the judicial vacuum. The bill stipulates that a nomination for a Constitutional Court justice must be completed 90 days before the outgoing justice’s term ends.

“This is to ensure that no vacancy will be created by allowing enough time,” he said. “Even if a nominee fails to pass a confirmation hearing, there should be time to find another candidate and hold a hearing.”

By Ser Myo-ja []
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