Conflicts on the benchesThe Supreme Court’s public ethics code has had a guideline since 2013 that restricts judges from taking cases represented by law firms where any of their relatives work. Judges are advised to stay away from cases if the lawyer’s team includes their spouses or siblings. Judges are also required to avoid trials involving their cousins or other relatives.
The guideline has been stipulated as an extra protection against unfairness in trials to the statutory law that restricts judges from cases involving relatives. The lower courts have so far abided by the rules. But, surprisingly, the highest court has not.
On the bench of the Supreme Court that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal in October last year to compensate four Koreans for their forced labor during Japanese colonial rule sat Justices Kim Seon-soo and Noh Jeong-hee. At the time, Korea’s top law firm Kim & Chang was involved with the Japanese company’s defense. The wife of Kim’s brother and a cousin-by-marriage of Noh work for Kim & Chang. Under the Supreme Court guideline, the two justices should not have been involved in the case.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su asked for a revision to the advisory clause, but when the ethics committee rejected that, he reportedly pushed to include the two justices on the case. His act invites criticism as his position requires safeguarding fairness and procedural justice in trials.
The Supreme Court maintains that the issue is not a problem since the ruling on forced labor during Japanese colonial days calls for a unanimous decision from the bench and that the Japanese team that included Kim & Chang lost the case in the end. Regardless of the results, however, procedural validity is important in a democratic society.
The issue of conflict of interest also applies to other justices. Justice Cho Hee-dae’s daughter and son-in-law and Justice Kim Jae-hyung’s wife also work in law firms. Justices Lee Seon-ae and Lee Suk-tae of the Constitutional Court also worked in law firms. Questions about fairness in the rulings of the two highest courts could resurface any time. Given the ramifications of their rulings on society, there must be stronger rules to avoid conflicts of interest in court.
JoongAng Sunday, Feb. 9-10, Page 30