A parliamentary bid for judicial reform appears to have foundered in the face of stiff opposition from prosecutors, judges and the presidential office. The special parliamentary committee that has grappled with the tough task of reforming the judicial system since February last year has decided to stop work this month, leaving most of the main issues on its agenda unresolved.
The committee reached the decision as its members could not agree on the four central proposals ― to scrap the Central Investigation Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, establish an independent investigative agency for corrupt judges and prosecutors, increase the number of Supreme Court justices, and enact a law on punishment standardization.
Parliamentary discussion on these issues will continue even after the dissolution of the special committee, as the Legislation and Judiciary Committee will pick up where it left off. Yet the chances of a breakthrough are slim, given that the reform campaign has already lost momentum.
Several factors could be cited for the collapse of the latest judicial reform drive. But the most potent one was probably the opposition of the presidential office to the proposal to disband the CID, an elite investigation unit whose power has often been politically abused.
Cheong Wa Dae remained silent ever since the parliamentary subcommittee on prosecution reform first announced their agreement to dissolve the CID in March this year. But it weighed in last week after prosecutors stood up against the lawmakers’ scheme. Siding with prosecutors, presidential aides said the CID should stay because it is a bulwark in fighting big corruption cases.
Cheong Wa Dae’s intervention turned the tide. It not only bolstered the prosecutors’ stance but emboldened lawmakers of the ruling party to rise up and nullify the accord that the party’s members on the prosecution reform subcommittee hammered out with their counterparts from the opposition Democratic Party.
Therefore, the presidential office cannot avoid criticism for ruining a rare chance to reform the judiciary and the prosecution. The ruling party also deserves derision for playing second fiddle to Cheong Wa Dae. Its lawmakers cannot escape responsibility for failing to uphold their agreement with the DP.
Prosecutors and judges are also to blame for putting the interests of their organizations before those of the public. In particular, prosecutors went out all guns blazing to resist the Assembly’s reform initiative. They even suspended their investigation into the savings bank scandal in protest.
Prosecutors also suggested that the lawmakers’ move to dissolve the CID was intended to prevent them from probing politicians involved in the scandal. This claim was misleading because the lawmakers planned to scrap the CID in 2012 or 2013, giving prosecutors plenty of time to investigate the savings bank mess. Nevertheless, it appealed to the public, especially innocent depositors of bankrupt savings banks, who called for a thorough investigation and stern punishment of those involved.
It is regrettable that another important opportunity for judicial reform went up in smoke. Yet the special committee’s work for more than one year was not entirely futile. For instance, they can claim credit for the enactment in April of a bill on curbing the practice of retired judges and prosecutors enjoying preferential treatment from their incumbent colleagues.
The committee also agreed on several reform measures, although they were overshadowed by the controversy over the CID. They included a scheme to appoint lawyers with 10 years or more experience as judges starting 2017 and the establishment of a recommendation committee for the presidential appointment of the prosecutor general. These bills should be enacted without fail.
The committee has one more important issue to tackle before dissolution ― rebalancing the relationship between the prosecution and the police. Police officers have long sought the right to begin investigations without approval from prosecutors. They should be granted that right.