Chief justice’s silence
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Korea’s judiciary on Oct. 13, 2018, President Moon Jae-in said, “I believe the judiciary has the capability to respond to the people’s hopes.” It is, however, unclear if the judiciary truly has such an ability or intention. In his speech, Moon said, “If there were any wrongdoings, the judiciary must correct them itself.”
But the situation seems quite the opposite. The judiciary is being dragged around in the campaign to eradicate so-called past evils and to build a new future. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is nowhere to be seen, while the senior presidential secretary of civil affairs, prosecutor-general and lawmakers are prominently taking initiatives.
In the speech, Moon gave a very good definition of the role of a court. “When the people, who are living their lives honestly, face an unfair situation, the law is their last resort,” he said. “A court is where they make an appeal for justice.” Whom will the powerless people trust? The Bible said Solomon is an example of a wise manager because he was a good judge. When people are having an argument, they accept a court’s ruling as a final decision. Although they may have some complaints, they trust that a court is right. Is this the situation in Korea today?
No conclusion has been made on the judiciary’s handling of some sensitive trials with the previous administration. The ongoing investigations by the prosecution and what the public has found out so far, however, suggest that even the Supreme Court was willing to overturn a ruling for their own vested interests. They made rulings to support the former president’s ideology and policy direction. The Supreme Court chief justice even took credit for himself and made detailed reports to the president about such actions.
Who can possibly believe that the judiciary will make a fair ruling? Nothing has changed and distrust has only deepened. When a trial begins, the first thing those involved are looking for is who would be the presiding judge, because they believe that the tendency of a particular judge will decide the ruling.
Ordinary people who do not have knowledge about the internal affairs of the judiciary could never imagine that judges would make public different voices over legal principles and make group actions depending on their affiliated associations. No one would imagine that judges will act like that even in trials, not in an academic debate. The public would have been shocked to learn that they can be detained or released depending on whom the presiding judge in their trial is.
Now, the National Assembly says it will create a special law to designate judges for trials because the outcome can vary depending on who the judge is. If a presiding judge is connected to a case, he or she must never try that particular case. As Rep. Park Ju-min of the Democratic Party has said, off-track systems are already in place — reassignments, recusals.
“But the court has failed to correct such malpractices, so the National Assembly should take control,” said Park. What is the judiciary doing? Of the seven divisions of the Seoul Central District Court, judges in five divisions are involved in trial deals with the previous administration, Park said. Then, doesn’t the judiciary have the ability to solve its own problems? Does it need to be assigned to cases?
The judiciary is facing a crisis of credibility with the latest scandal. If the trial trade scandal is a problem of the previous Supreme Court chief justice, the current situation is a problem of the current Supreme Court chief justice and distrust of all judges. Will Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo continue to do nothing about it?
“I will fully guarantee independence of the judiciary and judges,” President Moon said. In other words, their independence is in a serious crisis that requires such an assurance. If the ties between the judiciary and the previous administration were true, the judiciary should have resolved it on its own. Although it was the one that should make the final judgment, the judiciary asked outsiders to do so, prompting speculation. Now, even the case assignment is about to be done from the outside. And yet, Chief Justice Kim remains silent.
Until now, the judiciary suffered many injuries. President Moon promised presidential pardons to some of the accused in sensitive cases although trials are still ongoing. The spokesman for the president demanded the court to rule on the cases quickly. The presidential secretary for civil affairs demanded that the judiciary speed up its reforms. He even exchanged personal attacks with an incumbent senior judge using Facebook postings. The National Assembly said it will intervene if the judiciary fails to act properly. And yet, the chief justice of the Supreme Court remains silent.
At the 70th anniversary of the judiciary’s founding last month, Chief Justice Kim said, “As the head of the judiciary, I am in deep remorse that we have disappointed the people.” What has changed since then? What did he reflect on? Is he really ashamed that his predecessor had curried favor with President Park Geun-hye during her administration? Is everything corrected now? Can we really be sure that courts are no longer controlled by the president and the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs?
Although the country upholds the separation of power, appointed public servants cannot be more powerful than the elected leader. But when trial outcomes are different depending on the administration, the rule of law fails. The Supreme Court chief justice must find a balance.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 29, Page 31