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[Newsmaker] Chief Justice steps down with ‘heavy heart’

Park Han-chul, chief justice of the Constitutional Court, reiterated his calls for a speedy ruling in the impeachment trial of President Park Geun-hye at his retirement ceremony Tuesday. 

“The public are united in the view that a conclusion (on the impeachment) should be made as soon as possible, given the gravity of the situation in which the president has been suspended from duty for nearly two months,” the justice said, ending his six-year term as a member of the nine-judge court. 

Park’s farewell speech echoed his earlier call for a decision on the fate of the Park presidency to be made by March 13, before the term of another justice, Lee Jung-mi, expires. He earlier warned that the absence of justices could lead to a “distorted” ruling in the impeachment trial. 

“I believe that the fellow justices and colleagues at the court will serve as the beacon of the Constitution by making utmost efforts to strictly review whether the Constitution and laws were violated in this case,” said Park, adding that he leaves the court with a “heavy heart.”
Chief justice of the Constitutional Court Park Han-chul (Yonhap)
Chief justice of the Constitutional Court Park Han-chul (Yonhap)
As for the ongoing debate over the Constitutional reform in the political realm, Park said that such a revision should not serve a political purpose. “The Constitutional revision should be done in a way that more greatly guarantees human dignity, the people’s happiness and the nation’s wellbeing.”

Park also urged the National Assembly to play an active role in resolving conflicts of interests and social confrontation, saying a failure to do so could lead to “the public dissatisfaction and distrust in the political system.” 

Park’s seat will likely remain vacant for the time being, with the appointer -- President Park-- suspended from office and standing trial herself. Justice Lee will act as the court’s president. 

It is the third time the top post at the Constitutional Court has been left vacant since its establishment in 1988. The outgoing Chief Justice Park earlier chided the National Assembly for failing to enact a law stipulating the terms of justices at the Constitutional Court and thus causing the absence of a chief justice in a significant trial for the country. 

Debate ensued in the political arena over the vacancy of the chief justice, with the conservative bloc demanding acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn be given the authority to appoint Park’s successor. The post is supposed to be filled by a figure chosen by President Park. 

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea’s floor leader, Woo Sang-ho, dismissed such calls, saying it was against the public sentiment that seeks a rapid conclusion of the impeachment trial. “If a successor is nominated, the new chief will have to begin the trial from scratch,” he said. 

Appointed as the chief of the court by the sanctioned president Park Geun-hye in 2013, the outgoing Justice Park has left a crucial mark on the nation’s historic rulings, from the disbandment of the left-wing minor party to the abolishment of the criminal punishment of adultery.  

But under his command, the court was embroiled in allegations that it had been influenced by the presidential office when making the controversial ruling in 2014 to dissolve the minor Unified Progressive Party. The party was convicted of plotting a rebellion to support North Korea in the event of a war. 

The court flatly denied the allegations which came to light through a notebook left behind by the deceased former presidential secretary Kim Young-han. 

Born in Busan in 1953, Justice Park, a graduate of Seoul National University School of Law, started his career as a prosecutor in 1983. He served as head of the public security department at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and chief of the Seoul Eastern District Court. 

He left the public office in 2010 to briefly work as a lawyer for the nation’s largest law firm Kim & Chang. Since 2011, he served as a justice at the Constitutional Court and succeeded the court’s top seat in April 2013. 

The remaining eight judges have until June to decide whether to uphold the impeachment. President Park was impeached by the parliament on Dec. 9 over allegations she allowed her confidante Choi Soon-sil to meddle in state affairs and extorted donations from local firms for foundations controlled by Choi. She has denied all the charges.   

If the court rules to remove Park from office, a presidential election will be held within 60 days. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (