Election laws too important

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Election laws too important

Korea’s jury trial system was introduced in 2008 to heighten the democratic legitimacy of and confidence in the justice system. The system was first applied to a limited scope of felony cases, and after six years the time came to expand and modify it.

To ensure the success of a jury trial, fairness is crucial.

Ahn Do-hyun, a poet prosecuted on charges of spreading false rumors against then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye before the 2012 election, faced a jury trial at Jeonju District Court. Seven jurors anonymously acquitted Ahn last October, but the presiding judge overturned the jury’s decision and convicted him. (As opposed to the U.S. system, the jury’s verdict is not binding, although the presiding judge is encouraged to respect it.)

Following the incident, concerns arose that the jury’s verdict could have been influenced by regional sentiments.

In December, the Justice Ministry announced a plan to revise the law governing Korea’s jury trial system. In order to improve the fairness and confidence of a trial, the ministry plans to exclude some cases from jury trials, when the alleged crime could bring out unfair judgments by the jury.

The planned revision also will restrict jury trials only to cases tried by a three-judge panel. If the revision is made, most election law violation cases - except for a few, like outright bribery - will be excluded from jury trials.

The ministry said the revision is intended to save jury trials for cases that involve heavy punishments, adding that the change was not intended specifically to rule out election law violations.

But arguments have arisen that it is inappropriate for the ministry to revise the guidelines of a system decided by the Committee for Citizens’ Participation in the Judicial System under the Supreme Court.

Is it an issue of changing the scope of charges or is it that the ministry is trying to change the committee’s decision?

There is a high possibility that verdicts by juries could be skewed in political cases, including election law violations, because of the political preferences of jurors. But in those cases, the fairness and confidence of the system can be challenged. Furthermore, that reasoning can be used to justify an election crime or a way of challenging an election outcome.

When the relevant revisions were made in July 2012, a bill was submitted that only charges punishable by a prison term of more than one year should be reviewed by juries, but the National Assembly’s Judiciary and Legislative Committee revised the bill by adding other cases.

Without discussions on what other cases would be included, the revision bill was approved. Therefore, jury trials were changed to cover a wide scope of cases including election law violations.

Because the initial revision was unreasonable, revising it again is a must.

In other countries, jury trials are conducted for cases based on punishable sentences.

In the United States, only felony charges punishable by prison terms greater than six months are tried by jury. In France, jury trials are only for crimes punishable by prison terms of 10 years or more; in Germany only for crimes punishable by more than two years in prison; and in Japan only for capital crimes or those punishable with life terms in prison.

The Committee for Citizens’ Participation in the Judicial System under the Supreme Court reviewed the proposals and approved the final guidelines in March last year.

That opinion must be respected, but when further revisions are necessary, they must be made. It is inappropriate to block attempts to revise the system again when changes are necessary.

The time has come for our society to have a jury trial system, but our system is not perfect yet. We must continue modify its shortcomings.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of law at Gangneung-Wonju National University.

By Oh Kyung-sik
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