Chief justice apologizes for judicial scandal
Kim’s statement was uploaded to the judiciary’s internal servers and was primarily addressed to those inside the judicial branch. It addressed widespread concern in Korea’s courts about how to recover the judiciary’s prestige following the indictment of former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and two of his former deputies Monday.
Kim stressed he was open to accepting the public’s criticism of the courts, but added it was important for judges to watch Yang’s trial “unfold fairly in accordance to the law and principle.”
“We must focus on realizing structural reform to rectify the bureaucratic and exclusive nature of the judicial system and culture in order to prevent recurrence of misconduct in the judiciary,” Kim’s statement read.
Perhaps in reaction to recent challenges to the judiciary’s legitimacy and fairness by politicians, Kim said the illegal actions of past leaders must not lead to the questioning of all court rulings. He called upon the country’s judges to “adjudicate independently in accordance to the Constitution, laws and one’s conscience.”
The latter statement could also be partly directed at the courts that will be trying Yang and his accomplices, amid controversy over whether they can treat the case of their former boss fairly. Critics both inside and out of the judiciary say during Yang’s tenure as chief justice from 2011 to 2017, he accumulated powerful sway over hundreds of judges. He allegedly promoted those loyal to him and even shielded some of them from misconduct allegations.
The Supreme Court chief justice in Korea holds executive authority over the careers of almost 2,500 judges in all the lower courts. Various civic groups have listed at least 100 current judges linked to the scandal who may have assisted Yang’s power abuse or remain in his debt in some form.
On Tuesday, the Seoul Central District Court assigned the former chief justice’s trial to the 35th criminal court department, one of three new branches created specifically to deal with the scandal and dispel challenges to its neutrality.
The presiding judge of the 35th department, Park Nam-cheon, joined the judiciary 25 years after Yang and has no personal or professional connections to the former chief justice. He is primarily known for imposing a 1 million won ($890) fine on a conservative internet newspaper for calling a civic organization dealing with Japan’s wartime sexual slavery a “pro-North” organization.
Independently from Yang’s case, however, the political ramifications of the judicial power abuse scandal will surely reverberate for years to come. A key figure from the ruling Democratic Party (DP), which has led the political drive against Yang, told Yonhap News Tuesday the party would release a list of five sitting judges it would seek to impeach by the end of February. He said that the figures included would not surprise the public.
Perhaps as a response to concerns that seeking the impeachment of sitting judges would infringe upon the independence of the courts, another DP figure added that “impeachment is a last resort” and that the list of targeted judges was reduced to a minimum of five for this reason. Regardless, it is unclear whether impeachment would be actually feasible, given the fractured nature of the legislature.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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