Overloaded Supreme Court considers reforms

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Overloaded Supreme Court considers reforms

The Supreme Court is mulling a reform plan to fill more than one-fourth of its bench with outside lawmakers who are not sitting judges and to introduce a new court specializing in final appeals, a senior official from the nation’s top court told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The plan is designed to reduce the Supreme Court’s caseload, which has rapidly increased. It is also intended to strengthen the highest court’s role as a policymaker.

“We have reached a consensus that law experts with a wide range of views must sit on the Supreme Court bench if most of the appeals will be handled by a new appellate court, and the Supreme Court will focus on the role of policymaking,” said the senior official.

“As of now, four Supreme Court justices form a petty bench,” he said. “We believe at least one outside expert such as a lawyer or a professor must be included for each of the three petty benches. And we are currently discussing specific plans to realize this.”

The Supreme Court has 14 judges, including the chief justice and the minister of national court administration. As of now, 13 of the 14 are all career judges. The exception is Justice Park Poe-young, who was a lawyer when she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Instead of creating a legal requirement to force the recruitment of outside experts, the Supreme Court is mulling a plan to change the court’s internal regulations or by having the Supreme Court chief justice make a public pledge. The court will maintain the current requirement that a Supreme Court justice must be a lawyer who has worked in the legal community for more than 20 years.

A bipartisan bill to require the Supreme Court to recruit more than half of its justices from outside the judiciary is currently pending at the National Assembly.

As a part of the reform plan, the Supreme Court also wants to introduce a new appellate court between the high courts and the Supreme Court in the judicial hierarchy. The new court, specialized in final appeals, will be formed with about 50 senior judges from the high courts.

Once an appeal is filed, a petty bench of four Supreme Court justices will review it to decide whether it will be tried at the new appellate court or the full panel of the Supreme Court.

High-profile cases - including those that could change existing precedents - would likely be referred to the full panel of the Supreme Court.

The court estimated that about 100 to 200 cases will reach the highest court every year. The rest will be tried at the new appellate court.

The system of turning down an appeal to the Supreme Court without clearly stating the reason will be scrapped because it was criticized for increasing public distrust of the judiciary.

Introduced in 1994, the system allows the court to dismiss an appeal without a trial if it failed to meet the legal requirements for filing an appeal. When an appeal is rejected under the system, the dismissal is made within four months of the court receiving a petition and no explanation is made for the dismissal.

The system applies to civil, administrative and family cases but not to criminal cases.

In order to establish a new appellate court, revising six laws governing the judicial system would be required. The revisions are expected to be sponsored by lawmakers next month, but the fate of the reforms are iffy.

Many in the legal community including the Korea Bar Association and the Lawyers for a Democratic Society argued that increasing the number of Supreme Court justices is a better way to improve its efficiency rather than creating a new court.

Some experts warn that the introduction of a new appellate court is against the Constitution. Others including Prof. Sung Joong-tak of Kyungpook National University Law School said the Supreme Court must keep in mind that the people want to be judged by the highest court of the country, not a cut-rate version of it.

The Supreme Court is skeptical about the notion of increasing the number of justices on its bench. “If we have more justices, operating the full panel becomes practically impossible,” a senior Supreme Court official said. “It means we have to give up on the role of policymaking.”

According to Supreme Court judges, the reform is necessary because the number of appeals mushroomed over the recent years. In 2004, 20,432 cases reached the Supreme Court, but the number went up to 36,156 last year.

Excluding the chief justice and the minister of national court administration, the 12 justices of the Supreme Court each have to review 3,013 cases annually. Even if they work weekends, each justice has to handle 8.3 cases a day.

“All the Supreme Court justices carry the case files with them everywhere they go,” said a Supreme Court justice.

The Supreme Court has 103 trial researchers, including 27 senior judges, and their assistance is crucial for the top court to handle the surge in cases. “People filing appeals to the Supreme Court believe that the highest court will review their cases and save them,” said a lawyer who worked as one of the court’s researchers. “But many said they are actually being tried by the researchers.”

Law experts also said reforming the entire judicial system, particularly lower courts, is a more urgent priority.

“The people invest many hours and money to file appeals because they distrust the rulings of district courts,” said Chang Chu-young, a lawyer. “In order to reform the appellate system, the public distrust of the lower courts is the real starting point.”

At a National Assembly audit of the Supreme Court last month, Rep. Seo Young-kyo of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy revealed public complaints filed against judges and their disciplinary actions. In one case, a judge told a petitioner in a civil case that if he did not have the money to afford a lawyer, he should have not filed a lawsuit.

The Seoul Bar Association issued a report on similar complaints about judges in May. Many sitting judges were criticized for high-handedness. Plaintiffs often complained that judges had forced them to settle cases outside the courtrooms and showed biased views.

The judiciary has tried various measures to improve proceedings in the lower courts, including an education program and assigning veteran judges to a one-judge panel. Reducing the amount of paperwork for judges by using electronic systems was also introduced.

A new jury system for criminal cases was also introduced. But more and more plaintiffs are filing appeals, challenging district court rulings.

In 2009, 41.6 percent of civil cases and 60.2 percent of criminal cases tried in district courts were appealed. Last year, the numbers went up to 42.3 percent and 62.3 percent, respectively.

Public distrust of lower courts has also been fueled after different rulings were handed down on the same issue.

Earlier this month, Judge Wu In-seong of the Seoul Central District Court acquitted a 53-year-old man accused of obstructing justice for trying to stop police who were dismantling a protest by laid-off Ssangyong Motor workers in front of Deoksu Palace.

Another 54-year-old man, indicted on the same charge in the same court for the same behavior but tried by a different judge, was convicted.

“The people believe that your fate will change depending on who the judge is,” said a lawyer. “That’s why the number of appeals has skyrocketed.”

“Recently, appeals courts are showing a tendency to stick with initial rulings,” said Rha Seung-chul, head of the Seoul Bar Association.

When it announces its reform plan, the Supreme Court will also unveil plans to improve the integrity of the lower courts, but experts are skeptical about their effectiveness.

“Even former judges who are now practicing as lawyers complain that the district courts conduct poor, inadequate trials,” said a partner of a major law firm. “We need a drastic special measure.”

BY CHOI HYUN-CHUL, SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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