Legislature impeaches judge for political meddling
For the first time in the country's modern history, the ruling party and its allies Thursday impeached a sitting judge, accusing Judge Lim Seong-geun of the Busan High Court of meddling in politically sensitive trials during the previous administration.
On Thursday afternoon, the National Assembly voted on an impeachment motion submitted by a group of 161 lawmakers led by Rep. Lee Tah-ney of the Democratic Party (DP) earlier this week. It was passed by 179 votes, with 102 lawmakers opposing. Three abstained and four votes were considered invalid.
The impeachment resolution will be sent to the Constitutional Court for a trial. For the judge to be removed from office, at least six of the nine justices of the court must vote for the resolution.
In the past, lawmakers have made two unsuccessful attempts to impeach a Supreme Court justice. A motion to impeach Chief Justice Yoo Tai-heung was voted down in 1985 and a motion to impeach Justice Shin Young-chul in 2009 was never voted on due to political wrangling.
Lim is one of several judges who were tried for abuse of power for allegedly meddling in politically sensitive trials during the previous administration. He served as chief senior judge of the Criminal Department of the Seoul Central District Court from 2014 to 2016 and then senior judge on the Seoul High Court and Busan High Court.
He was indicted in March 2019 for meddling in trials presided over by junior judges in 2015 and 2016. The Seoul Central District Court acquitted Lim in February 2020 but acknowledged his meddling was an "unconstitutional act."
Liberal lawmakers from the ruling DP and minor liberal parties pursued a campaign to impeach Lim. A group of 161 lawmakers led by DP Rep. Lee Tah-ney filed the motion to impeach Lim with the National Assembly on Monday.
The lawmakers said they wanted to impeach Lim because he had pressured junior judges to revise their rulings to placate the administration, including a case concerning President Park Geun-hye in 2015. Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief for Japan's Sankei Shimbun, was indicted in October 2014 for defamation after writing a column raising questions about her whereabouts for seven hours during the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16, 2014, which killed 304 people. The reporter was acquitted in December 2015.
Lim, at the time, was a senior judge on the Seoul Central District Court, and he was accused of pressuring the judges on the Kato case to specify in their ruling that Kato's claims about Park were groundless.
Lim was also accused of having intervened in a case involving two professional baseball players involved in illegal gambling overseas and in the sentencing of progressive lawyers arrested for allegedly obstructing police during a SsangYong Motor demonstration in 2015.
After the lawmakers submitted the motion on Monday, Lim posted a statement on the judiciary's intranet condemning the ruling party for attempting to control the judiciary by threatening impeachment of a judge.
Hours before the legislature's vote on his impeachment, Lim also made a bombshell revelation that Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su stopped him from stepping down last year — so the ruling party could impeach him later. The revelation, however, did little to stop the DP and its allies from passing the motion.
On Thursday morning, a lawyer representing Lim released an audio recording and transcript of a conversation between Lim and Kim on May 22, 2020. The disclosure was made five hours before the National Assembly opened the plenary session to vote on the impeachment.
Local media raised suspicions earlier this week that Kim rejected Lim's resignation last year to allow the National Assembly to impeach him, but Kim denied the allegation.
"I have never said I would not accept the resignation because of the impeachment issue," Kim said Wednesday.
In the recording and the transcript, Kim admitted that impeachment was the main issue.
"I have to think about many possibilities before accepting your resignation," Kim tells Lim on the recording. "I have to consider the political situation."
On the recording, Kim said he personally had no problem with Lim resigning, but the political situation forbid him from accepting it. "Frankly speaking, lawmakers are making a fuss to impeach you," Kim said. "What will the National Assembly say to me if I accept your resignation?"
The conversation continued: "I don't think the impeachment [of a judge] is a feasible system or that you should be impeached," Kim told Lim. "But politics is a different matter. If I just accept your resignation today to prevent them from talking about impeachment, it will deprive them of a chance to discuss the issue of impeachment. It is extremely inappropriate for me to face such criticism."
According to Lim's lawyer, Lim made another request to Kim last December to accept his resignation, but Kim refused.
"While Kim accepted other judges' resignations, he told Lim to complete his term and retire as scheduled at the end of February," the lawyer said.
After the disclosure, Kim was criticized for having lied about his meeting with Lim on Wednesday. Kim issued a brief apology on Thursday afternoon, saying his denial on Wednesday was based on "inaccurate memory of what had happened nine months ago."
The opposition People Power Party (PPP) said Kim is unfit to serve as chief justice after betraying the independence of the judiciary. The PPP said Kim must step down or it will start a campaign to impeach him.
"The Supreme Court chief justice is responsible to protect judges from political pressure in order to maintain the independence of the judiciary," Kim Chong-in, acting chair of the PPP, said Thursday. "And yet, Kim has acted as a puppet of this administration. He was a coward by keeping silent about the administration's campaign to take on the judges and refused to accept the resignation of a judge to force him to face impeachment."
A conservative civic group filed a criminal complaint with the Supreme Prosecutors' Office on Thursday accusing Kim of defaming Lim and dereliction of duty.
BY SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]