Diversity at judicature
All-conservative courts cannot win people’s trust
A seismic shift is looming over the nation’s judiciary branch. In July, the Supreme Court will see four of its 12 justices change, and five new judges will sit at the nine-member Constitutional Court in September. In other words, the next four months will determine Korea’s judicial current until 2018.
Given the increasingly noticeable trend of judicial activism in democratized Korea, popular attention is now on new appointments. Holding the key naturally are President Lee Myung-bak and Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae.
Most worrisome in this regard is the possibility that the conservative President would fill all the positions with like-minded judges. Such concerns are not groundless, considering the ideological rigidity of Lee and his party. The Constitutional Court has been operating with just eight judges for nearly 10 months since the governing party voted down an opposition party nominee for his ``less than clear” ideological inclination.
For too long, the two top courts have been like alumni events of middle-aged, conservative, male graduates of Seoul National University. That changed when former President Roh Moo-hyun and then Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon introduced some liberals and female justices. Lee’s Supreme Court is widely credited with decisions that have expanded basic rights and worked for the underprivileged sectors of the society.
In this rapidly changing and increasingly fragmented world, diversity, not uniformity in the composition of top courts represents the needs of social components better and ensures people’s trust.
President Lee and Chief Justice Yang should not remain content with mixing a few from different schools and regions but go further to select judges who can make judgments not by narrow legal logic but by broader common sense. It would be better still if they pick not only from among sitting judges but from lawyers specializing in labor or human rights affairs.
The previous, uniformly-backgrounded justices and their identical mindsets have often led to ideology-driven, one-sided decisions, including the controversial refusal to rehire a liberal judge for disclosing the court proceedings of a politically sensitive case to the public. Such a backward lack of openness compares with the U.S. Senate’s recent approval of a bill that requires the court to permit television coverage of most of its arguments. Few Koreans want their courts to go back a few decades, which unfortunately, seems to be what President Lee has in mind.
Admittedly, most presidents tend to appoint sympathetic judges to the Supreme Court, who can help them leave a lasting legacy.
Yet the chief justices shouldn’t bind themselves with politicized agendas but serve as fair and just umpires according to the check-and-balance principle of democracy. Now that the applications are in for Supreme Court justices, Yang will propose three of them to President Lee. He is also authorized to pick two Constitutional Court judges by September.
A reshuffle of top court judges is no less important than parliamentary or even presidential elections. Enormous authority is bestowed upon Chief Justice Yang. He must exercise it positively and correctly.