Top court wags finger at slanders on judges

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Top court wags finger at slanders on judges

The Supreme Court Monday issued a rare statement of disapproval of public attacks on judges reviewing cases related to former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family, saying they were a possible affront to judicial independence.

The statement, released in the form of a response to the National Assembly Legislation and Judiciary Committee’s request for comment, is the top court’s first comment on heated public reaction to controversial rulings made by Seoul Central District Court judges in cases involving members of Cho’s family.

“Justified criticism of trials may be allowed, but to excessively criticize judges on the results of individual trials or demanding they appear at parliamentary audits as witnesses are acts that may constitute threats to the independence of the courts,” the Supreme Court statement said.

The Supreme Court’s decision to make its position known in this case - which it rarely does - testifies to the increasingly polarizing nature of the criminal investigation into former Minister Cho’s family members, including his wife Chung Kyung-sim and younger brother.

As part of their wide-ranging probe into the family, prosecutors on Oct. 9 applied for the arrest of Cho’s brother on a bribery charge, but their request was denied by Judge Myeong Jae-kwon. That decision sparked heavy criticism from conservative activists, with many arguing Myeong’s ruling was politically motivated.

By contrast, Judge Song Kyung-ho’s decision to grant an arrest warrant for Chung last Thursday invited similar accusations - but this time from the left.

At rallies staged by both camps in recent weeks, participants were seen holding up signs mentioning the judges by name to protest their rulings. Far more alarming activity took place on the internet, where pictures of the judges circulated on forums along with threatening suggestions like “execution by burning” or “decapitation.”

Former and incumbent judges have expressed alarm at such public hysteria. One attorney who served as a high court judge said he had “never before seen such criticism” targeted at individual judges, while a sitting judge who used to review warrant requests while serving in a district court said it was impossible for judges not to feel pressured by such public reaction.

Another lawyer who used to sit on the bench noted the vulnerability of judges. “Unlike prosecutors, judges do not have an organization to back them up and must deal with such personal attacks individually,” he said.

Myeong actually faced a similar public backlash in January when he convicted South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo for an opinion meddling case in the last presidential election. After receiving threats, the judge had to seek police protection.

In the same statement, the Supreme Court commented on the Blue House’s recent decision to appoint Kim Hyung-yeon, a former judge who served as presidential secretary for legal affairs, to head the Ministry of Government Legislation, a body responsible for supporting the government’s legislative efforts. Since Kim retired as a judge only two years ago in 2017, the court expressed concern that such a short interval could affect judicial independence.

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