Former Supreme Court chief put behind barsFormer Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae was arrested early Thursday morning on charges of abusing his authority to interfere with trials as part of an unconstitutional collusion with the previous administration.
This makes Yang, 71, the first former head of the judiciary in Korean history to be placed behind bars.
The arrest was also the first step in what could become a historic admission by a court of law of a systematic perversion of the course of justice - ordered by the judiciary’s most powerful figure. In Korea, the chief justice of the Supreme Court oversees the entire judiciary of the country.
The Seoul Central District Court, presided over by Judge Myeong Jae-kwon, approved Yang’s arrest warrant at around 2 a.m. Thursday after around 10 hours of deliberations.
The seriousness of the matter and the risk of Yang destroying evidence warranted his immediate detention, the court statement read.
The writ prosecutors filed against Yang contained 41 criminal charges from his time as head of the Supreme Court from 2011 to 2017.
These alleged crimes can loosely be organized into three groups: actions taken to pursue his goal of establishing a new appeals court; suppression of dissenting voices in the courts; and actions meant to prop up the prestige and cohesion of the judiciary as a whole.
The first category is by far the most well known and serious, given its implications on the independence of the judiciary and the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. In order to gain the Park Geun-hye administration’s support for a new appeals court system, Yang allegedly ordered meddling in ongoing political sensitive trials in ways he believed would please the Blue House.
The most prominent were two suits filed by former laborers against Japanese companies that forced them to work during World War II, which were allegedly indefinitely deferred by the Supreme Court to spare Park diplomatic problems with Japan. Another was the trial of a former spy chief accused of orchestrating a massive opinion rigging campaign in the 2012 presidential election in Park’s favor.
Yang is also accused of having ordered plans be drafted to crack down on gatherings by judges belonging to a liberal-leaning study group largely due to their opposition to his appeals court drive. Prosecutors also have evidence that he ordered subordinates to monitor the activities of judges critical of his leadership of the judicial branch.
Through seven months of investigation since last June, prosecutors focused their efforts on proving that Yang was not only implicated in the numerous instances of judicial misconduct but that he actively ordered these actions at the expense of the proper course of justice.
During Yang’s arrest warrant hearing on Wednesday, prosecutors argued that each of the former chief justice’s suspected crimes was a severe threat to the country’s constitutional order.
Yang and his lawyers reiterated his earlier categorical denials of all the accusations on the basis that he did not remember or that the actions were carried out by his subordinates without his knowledge.
The defense also tried to challenge some of the evidence presented by the prosecution, saying that notes of Yang’s orders taken down in a booklet by one of his subordinates had been fabricated.
The court ultimately ruled in the prosecution’s favor and granted the warrant that put Yang into custody at the Seoul Detention Center, where he had been awaiting the results of the ruling through Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.
News of the arrest immediately reverberated across the country, from politicians to lawyers and civic activists welcoming the court’s decision alike.
For the judiciary, however, the detention of its former chief on criminal charges represented an unprecedented disgrace, with some analysts appraising Thursday as the “most shameful day in the judiciary’s 71-year history.”
On his way to work on Thursday, current Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su made a public apology on behalf of the judicial branch.
“I feel truly wretched and embarrassed,” Kim said. “I cannot find words in this situation that could give comfort to the people or lay bare [the judiciary’s] sincerity and resolution.”
Kim vowed that he and all members of the judiciary would fulfill their responsibilities faithfully.
“I once again extend an apology to the people,” he added, without going into details into how he would work to restore the people’s faith in the branch of government.
Among many in the prosecution, the news of Yang’s arrest came as a surprise, as many expected the court would try to shield one of their own from the shame that comes with pre-trial detention - not a necessary step in a criminal procedure.
Some legal analysts said Myeong Jae-kwon’s background as a former prosecutor was instrumental in his decision to detain Yang. But a prevailing sentiment within the judiciary - attested by many sources throughout its annus horribilis last year - held that a restoration of the public’s faith in the branch would necessitate vigorous punishment for the figure who brought it so low.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]