Supreme Court sounds caution about agency

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Supreme Court sounds caution about agency

The Supreme Court expressed concern about judicial independence after the ruling party promoted a bill creating a new agency to investigate crimes committed by senior government officials, including judges.

A statement by the court Tuesday responded to a request from an opposition member of the National Assembly’s special committee on judicial reform asking for its position on the bill. Analysts saw it as a sign of the top court’s cautious disapproval.

“This is fundamentally a matter to be decided through legislative policy,” the court’s statement read. “But the legislation must be carefully considered so as not to damage the principles of separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution and the independence of the judiciary.”

Legal experts considered it significant that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, who was appointed by President Moon Jae-in in 2017, is taking a critical stance to a proposal central to the Blue House’s attempts at judicial reform.

The bill was one of four subject to a standoff in the National Assembly late last month between a multiparty coalition led by the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) that, at times, let to physical scuffles.

While the bills were eventually fast-tracked - guaranteeing that they will be put to a general vote on the floor after a period of review - the DP and Blue House have faced opposition from within their own government, namely from Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il, who earlier said the proposed bills on judicial reform went against “democratic principles.”

The bill on the new agency, while initially conceived as a means to weed out corruption and malfeasance by top-ranking figures across the government, underwent adjustments as a result of partisan wrangling. They reduced the targets of the new unit’s proposed indictment powers to prosecutors, judges and high-ranking police officers, leaving out legislators and relatives of the president.

Several figures in the judiciary and prosecution who criticize the bill argue that the new agency, independent from higher powers in any of the three branches of government, would reign supreme over law enforcement and the judicial branch to an extent that it could infringe upon the Constitutional principle of separation of powers. Within the judiciary in particular, the overwhelming concern is that the unit’s authority would override the Constitution’s Article 106, which guarantees judges’ immunity from sacking except by impeachment or a prison sentence.

“If the [new agency] attempts to punish judges and prosecutors with power abuse or dereliction of duty charges based on complaints filed by state-sponsored organizations or malicious entities, [judges and prosecutors] will have no choice but to lie low,” Kim Tae-gyu, a judge of the Busan District Court, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It can especially be employed as a useful tool by the administration to remove dissenting voices in the judiciary.”

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