Safeguard court independenceThe South Korean Constitution stipulates that judges must rule independently according to their conscience and in conformity with the Constitution and the law. Judiciary sovereignty is ensured so judges can make their rulings without outside influence and interference. Their independent, autonomous judgment is essential to the fairness of court decisions. Independence, therefore, is more about the judges’ obligations to the people rather than their prerogatives.
In appointing new justices, Yang Sung-tae, chief justice of the Supreme Court, warned that a shallow sense of justice and half-baked convictions can undermine the independence of the court. “Sovereignty of the court is based on confidence in the judges,” he stressed. He also worried that judges increasingly come under attack from critics who hurl groundless accusations from a prejudiced and unbalanced perspective. His words were double-edged, advising judges to demonstrate more discretion in making socially controversial rulings, as well as accusing outside figures of excess criticism of court decisions.
We agree with the chief justice’s remarks. Some court rulings have raised social uproar. One court recently freed a defendant accused of paying respects to a tomb of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung - who ordered the invasion of South Korea - during an unauthorized visit to Pyongyang. It judged that the defendant was only following a long Korean tradition of paying respects to the most revered person in the community. Last year, another court delivered a not-guilty verdict to members of the Unified Progressive Party accused of using proxy votes to help certain candidates win proportional representative seats. The court said the splinter party did not have a separate regulation on direct election procedures.
These rulings contradict both general public opinion and common sense. As important as the independence of the rulings is the sense of responsibility by judges to uphold the legitimacy of the court and its sovereignty. A judge sometimes has to bend his or her own values and convictions to defend the law and principles. That is what conscience is all about.
It is also wrong for politicians and pundits to evaluate rulings based on ideological bias toward judges. Criticism should be based on legal reasoning, not the tendencies of individual judges. We all have to remember that everyone could fall victim if the court loses independence.