Shaking the judiciaryAttacks on the court and judge that permitted the rally on Aug. 15 in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, have gone overboard. Lawmakers as well as the prime minister and justice minister joining the civilian criticism are undermining the separation of powers.
The Seoul city government banned gatherings in downtown Seoul on Aug. 15 which is Liberation Day. Ten petitions were already filed with the court to lift the ban. The Seoul Administrative Court turned down eight of them and allowed two after finding a complete ban on the assembly unconstitutional. The court also noted that prior assemblies had not caused any infections and that participants abided by mask-wearing and distancing rules.
The Constitutional Court has been consistent in its rulings finding excessive ban on the assembly unconstitutional. Dissident groups were able to hold many gatherings legitimately under the last conservative government.
The Park Geun-hye administration sought to prohibit rallies supporting presidential impeachment many times, but the court ruled that such an attempt violates freedom of assembly.
As a result of the participation of some protesters in the Aug. 15 rally, despite a ban from the court, they contributed to the virus spread. People are free to criticize their action disregarding broader public health interests. Yet petitioning for the dismissal of the judge who gave the go-ahead for the rallies on Gwanghwamun Square through the Blue House home page is the same as asking the executive branch to meddle in judiciary affairs.
Ruling party lawmakers have been ratcheting up their rhetoric against the court. Rep. Lee Won-wook, who ran for an executive post of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), even used a damning word against the judge and petitioned for a bill named after the judge.
A bill calling for a complete ban on assemblies is surely unconstitutional, but using the judge’s name is just vulgar.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun claimed that quarantine has collapsed because of the misjudged approval of gatherings. It was the government that eased social distancing rules and allowed a long weekend by making Aug. 17 a temporary holiday. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae even called on the judiciary to “step out from their desks and cooperate with the public,” as if to make orders to the court.
Court rulings cannot satisfy everyone and people can have their complaints. But the comments and behavior from the government and legislature are harmful to the independence of the court. Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su must make his position clear.