Qualifications of justices
Confirmation hearing should not be rite of passage
When Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae began selecting candidates to fill four vacancies at the Supreme Court about two months ago, this page called on him to consider such factors as diversity of court composition and the expertise of judges.
Please bump that!
All we should have demanded from the candidates for the nation’s highest court were far more basic qualifications needed for lesser public officials ― moral integrity and professional neutrality.
Most Koreans might feel the same watching the confirmation hearing on the four nominees, which started Tuesday at the National Assembly.
One of them, Kim Byeong-hwa, head of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office, is suspected of violating the law that prohibits falsifying residential address for real estate speculation as well as abusing his authority to help his son, who is serving as a public worker for alternative military service, get assigned at an easier post.
Law-breaking records for amassing personal property or avoiding mandatory military have become so common among people nominated by President Lee Myung-bak for cabinet ministers and other key posts that critics have come to sneer that these have actually become ``compulsory” requirements. Yet it is more than just frustrating to see the same problems in justice nominees, questioning the meaning of the rule of law.
Even a more serious question of qualification can be raised about Kim Shin. The problem with the 55-year-old chief of the Ulsan District Court was his extreme religious bias. Kim reportedly ruled in favor of a Christian pastor in defiance of the Supreme Court’s precedents, and tried to force litigants to pray at courts and guide them into an out-of-court settlement. In an essay, Kim attributed an earthquake in India to indicate a warning from God and called for sanctifying the nation’s second largest city.
Come to think of it, however, little wonder about it. President Lee, a Presbyterian elder, vowed to consecrate Seoul while he was its mayor. Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, chief of the ruling Saenuri Party, maintained all Supreme Court justices should be Christians. Are we Koreans going back to the Middle Ages minding about the separation of the state from church? Kim says he has never made a religiously prejudiced ruling, but even his associate judges with different faiths would doubt it. Korea may even have to worry about diplomatic dispute with India. Amen!
Two other nominees have track records that include ruling in favor of family-controlled conglomerates in chaebol vs. ordinary people cases, running squarely counter to the latest trends of economic democratization.
Behind all this is a structural problem in the judiciary appointment system, which allows the president to virtually appoint a chief justice, who in turn names justices. At least to ensure the separation of powers, there must be a change in ways to better reflect a bottom-up process and more transparent selection criteria.
Until then, lawmakers, especially opposition legislators, must do their best to block the ruling party’s attempt to turn a confirmation hearing into a mere rite of passage, and filter out unqualified nominees.
A prolonged void of some Supreme Court seats is undesirable, but letting them get occupied by unworthy judges is intolerable.