Leave the Judges Alone
By Oh Young-jin
If you want to hold power for two years, be a president. For four years in power, get elected to the National Assembly on the ticket of a supermajority party. For six years, get an appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
This conventional wisdom does not intend to highlight how soon the head of state can turn into a lame duck in the current single-term, five-year presidency but point out that there is a reason why the leader of the judiciary is allowed the longest term among the heads of the three branches of the government.
It is meant to ensure the court's autonomy.
Now that autonomy is under fire. It is notable that Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon has managed to keep his judges out of the fray.
Leading the assault on the court are state prosecutors, backed by conservative mass media outlets.
This onslaught comes in the broader context of a dramatic ideological shift under the stewardship of the current conservative government.
In other words, the governing Grand National Party enjoys close to a supermajority in the legislature and is working closely with the administration in an effort to reverse the effects of 10 years of liberal rule.
Less than two years into the term of the new administration, the conservatives have planted their flags in virtually all areas of society except for the judiciary.
For the ideological health of the nation, an independent judiciary is important but the conservatives are fighting an effective fight to undermine the court's sanctity by focusing on the two latest rulings.
The first was a not-guilty verdict given by Judge Lee Dong-yeon of the Seoul Southern District Court to Rep. Kang Ki-gab of the leftist Democratic Labor Party.
Kang was indicted without physical detention on three charges derived from his action following Speaker Kim Hyong-o's order to call in security personnel in order to help the ruling camp proceed with the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) last January.
Judge Lee dismissed all three charges - obstruction of execution of official duty for a tussle with security officers; breaking and entering for his entry into the office of Park Gye-dong, secretary general of the Assembly secretariat; and destroying government property for throwing a table at the office.
Television footage captured Kang, a lawmaker clad in traditional costume with a long beard, hopping from one chair to another in Park's office, while Park was reading a newspaper.
Immediately after the ruling, the judge has been facing a great deal of criticism by a tag team of prosecutors and conservative newspapers.
The conservative newspapers drew first blood by accusing the judge of lacking an understanding of the law, thus making a mistake in his verdict. Then, their attacks moved on to what they saw as his leftist-leaning views and used their own self-rationalization as the basis for their calls for the overhaul of the judiciary.
On the blogsphere, there are calls for the resignation of Chief Justice Lee, who has about 20 months in office, saying he was appointed by the late President Roh Moo-hyun. Now GNP picked up their calls, demanding Lee step down.
Some conservative bloggers have made off-color accusations about Judge Lee's hometown in Honam, the southwestern region, which is a political rival to Yeongnam, the eastern parts that are home to President Lee Myung-bak and the ruling GNP.
The prosecutors, dexterous spin doctors themselves, aided and abetted the newspapers' witch hunt in a move to add strong public support to its legal appeal against Judge Lee's ruling.
As with any other fight for hegemony it is involved with, the prosecution has shown an attack-dog nature, as the faithful follower of any order given from above.
In the second case, the prosecutors are leading, while the conservative newspapers are playing a subsidiary role. Battle lines have been drawn over the court's order, overriding the prosecutors' opposition, to make public records of about 2,000 pages regarding what took place in the lead-up to a police raid during the sit-in protest by tenants resisting eviction from a building in Yongsan, central Seoul, last January. Five tenant holdouts were killed in a blaze that occurred during the raid.
With the supporting front-page coverage of a conservative newspaper, the prosecutors have lodged a protest with the judiciary.
Chief Justice Lee has so far refrained from a direct confrontation with the prosecutors. He has responded once, saying through his spokesman that he has been concerned with the challenges by prosecutors through the court of public opinion.
I admire Lee for his perseverance and agree with him that the judiciary's neutrality provides the basis for the rule of law, without which everybody, conservative or progressive, will end up as losers in the democracy we are living in.