How to tame judgesThe ruling Democratic Party (DP) has decided to proceed with a motion to impeach Lim Seong-geun, a senior judge in the Busan High Court, and pass it at the National Assembly this week. Given the difficulties of punishing judges through normal judicial procedures due to legal protections, impeachment of judges is allowed when they violate the law in an exceptional way. Although two motions to impeach a chief justice and a justice of the Supreme Court were submitted to the legislature in the past, they were not approved.
Politicians must approach the impeachment of judges very carefully as it represents the legislature’s direct intervention in the judicial branch. And yet, as many as 111 DP lawmakers and some from minor oppositions supported the motion. That raises serious questions about the timing and reasons behind it.
The reasons the DP cited to impeach the senior judge are hard to understand. Reps. Lee Tan-hee and Lee Su-jin, both former judges from a progressive group in the judiciary, attributed it to a lower court’s description of Lim as a “judge who committed an anti-constitutional act.” Lim is undergoing a trial for allegedly pressuring one of his junior judges to specify in a ruling that a Japanese newspaper correspondent’s claims about former president Park Geun-hye’s actions for “seven hours during the Sewol ferry tragedy” were groundless.
The ruling in the first trial contained the wording that regarded Lim’s intervention in the trial as “unconstitutional.” But the court viewed it just as an “advice or recommendation,” not an infringement on the ruling. As a result, Lim was acquitted of the charge of abuse of power. And yet, the DP leadership approved an impeachment motion.
We wonder why the presumption of innocence is not applied to a senior judge despite the DP’s fervent championing of it in the past. If lawmakers want to impeach a judge, they must present clear evidence. But the DP has refused to submit the case to the Legislation and Judiciary Committee for legal review.
DP Chairman Lee Nak-yon claimed that a dismissal of a judge’s unconstitutional act constitutes the “National Assembly’s dereliction of duty.” If the DP really submits an impeachment motion to the Constitutional Court, the party could follow in the footsteps of former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who tried to oust Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl but failed twice.
The DP’s behavior could be a part of its endeavor to rein in the judiciary. The party leadership’s endorsement of the impeachment motion came a day after a court delivered Rep. Choi Kang-wook, an ally of the DP, a sentence that may deprive him of his seat in the Assembly. The Supreme Court and Constitutional Court are filled with judges appointed by President Moon Jae-in. But the courts have repeatedly ruled against his administration. We hope the DP’s impeachment motion is not designed to send judges a message.