In February last year, the ruling Grand National Party and the main opposition Democratic Party agreed to resume efforts to reform the judiciary and the prosecution, a project that was promoted by lawmakers of the 17th National Assembly but has since been left on the back burner.
The main impetus behind the latest legislative campaign was the two parties’ desire to correct what they saw as the political and ideological biases of judges and prosecutors that have impeded justice and undermined the public’s trust in the legal system.
GNP lawmakers were annoyed by a series of “outrageous” rulings by liberal judges, while DP lawmakers were seething with anger over the prosecution’s “politically motivated” investigation of former President Roh Moo-hyun. The disgraced president committed suicide in May 2009.
On top of that, a string of corruption cases involving judges and prosecutors convinced lawmakers that the self-regulatory systems of the judiciary and the prosecution were ineffectual in curbing the abuse of power by some unscrupulous members of the privileged class.
It was against this backdrop that a parliamentary subcommittee put forward on Thursday a draft reform plan that called for a sweeping overhaul of the court and prosecution systems.
Regarding the judiciary, it proposed increasing the number of Supreme Court justices from the current 14 to 20, appointing lawyers with 10 years or more experience as judges starting 2017, and establishing an independent panel on standardization of punishment for certain types of crimes.
Judges found some of the proposals unnerving. For instance, punishment standardization could constrain a judge’s ruling in a given case, although it is aimed at avoiding confusion stemming from widely divergent rulings on similar cases. But they refrained from expressing their views on the plan, playing it down as a draft not yet endorsed by the parties.
Unlike the judges, prosecutors vehemently denounced the plan as it called for the abolition of the Central Investigation Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. The CID is the most powerful unit of the prosecution that focuses on high-profile corruption cases involving politicians, top government officials, and powerful business figures.
Prosecutors suspected that the proposal to remove the CID was intended to make investigation into corruption among lawmakers more difficult. This suspicion is not groundless.
In place of the CID, the draft proposes an independent investigation unit tasked with cracking down on wrongdoing among judges, prosecutors and prosecution investigators. Curiously, lawmakers are not included as its targets, although they are by no means less prone to corruption than judges and prosecutors.
The reform plan is facing a rough time in the National Assembly, given the angry reaction from the prosecution and a negative response from some GNP and DP lawmakers.
While prosecutors’ opposition to the legislative move is understandable, they need to reflect on their practices first before condemning it. What motivated lawmakers to invoke their legislative power to reform the prosecution was its failure to maintain political independence and neutrality.
The reform plan is obviously not a perfect solution to all the problems of the judiciary and the prosecution. But it should not be dismissed as a scheme without any merit.
The draft provides a starting point for a constructive debate on judicial reform, given that it is the first reform agenda jointly produced by lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties. The leaders of the two parties need to ensure that it is fine-tuned through debate before being submitted to the National Assembly. They need to enlist cooperation from prosecutors as well as judges.