Silence of the chief justice

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Silence of the chief justice

 Ruling Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers have motioned a bill to impeach Lee Seong-geun, a senior judge at the Busan High Court, and put it to a vote at the National Assembly on Thursday. Since the DP commands over 170 seats at the 300-member legislature, the bill is expected to pass easily. Impeachment was motioned against the chief justice and a justice of the Supreme Court in the past, but the two motions were voted down.

A judge cannot be dismissed unless he or she gets a jail term for a serious fault or moral problems. A judicial review on whether to extend a judges’ term takes place every 10 years. An impeachment is a system to remove a judge with serious ethical questions from the bench overseeing trials. It is to serve the independence of the judiciary, not to put it under the influence of the legislature.

Politicians would have plenty of complaints against the bench. But none of them attempted to impeach an ordinary sitting judge, as it was difficult to draw public support to find a seriously disqualified judge. Lawmakers also have refrained from impeaching a judge given social ramifications. Moreover, democracy runs on separation of three branches.

Judge Lim was found guilty of power abuse by ordering a junior judge to include certain comments in his ruling. The judge in the first trial accused him of committing “unconstitutional act.” But Lim was pardoned since his action did not influence the results of the ruling. Actually, he made the order after the ruling was drafted.

Whether Lim deserves impeachment is disputable. Opponents question the motive behind the motion by DP lawmakers. They attribute it to the DP’s determination to retaliate against the judiciary after it delivered a string of rulings unfavorable to the ruling front — for instance, upholding of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s injunction suits against disciplinary action from the Justice Ministry, a guilty ruling on South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyoung-soo, an arrest of the wife of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, and a suspended guilty sentence of Choe Kwang-wook, a former presidential secretary and head of Open Democratic Party.

Chief Justice Kim Myeong-soo must answer the question whether he really agrees to the impeachment. Kim vowed to devote himself to defending the sovereignty of the judiciary. He reiterated that he would act strongly against any external pressure that can impair the independence of the court. But he is keeping silence on the DP’s attempt to impeach Lim. Kim must act on his words so as not to send the wrong message to judges and the people.
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