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[Newsmaker] Lee Jung-mi: From beacon for the underprivileged to historic judge

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Published : 2017-03-12 18:08
Updated : 2017-03-12 18:08

With the Constitutional Court scheduled to unveil its ruling on the fate of then President Park Geun-hye at 11 a.m. on Friday, acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi arrived at the courthouse earlier than usual to gather with other judges for their one last deliberation before reaching a verdict.

Amid a burst of camera flashes, the most intriguing component of the scene were two tiny pink hair rollers still attached to the back of her bobbed curly hair. The image went viral in no time, despite court officials’ plea with the media not to use it, giving birth to a flurry of memes.

Lee Jung-mi, acting chief justice of the Constitutional Court, has rollers in her hair. (Yonhap)

Lee, 55, is retiring from the court Monday as her six-year term comes to a close.

As the only female justice in the nine-member bench, she became the youngest person in history to take on the coveted job in 2011. Her nomination by then Supreme Court head Lee Yong-hoon also gained traction as she is a graduate of Korea University, an atypical feature in a community overwhelmingly dominated by Seoul National University male alumni.

The soft-spoken, strong-minded Lee maintained a low profile throughout her career, but was credited for siding with the vulnerable in society. Among her landmark verdicts include a 2003 ruling in favor of a mother who died after a cesarean operation without being sufficiently informed of the surgery’s risks by her doctor. In 2007, she ordered a builder and a bank to compensate residents of rental apartments allotted for the low-income bracket for slack construction.

“A constitutional justice bears the duty enshrined in the Constitution to mediate between various values and conflicts in society so as to achieve social integration in a more developed form,” Lee said upon her assumption of the constitutional judgeship.

“Accordingly he or she has to be delicate and considerate, and have a solid sense of balance, so that the minority and the disadvantaged in society will not be sacrificed.”

At the Constitutional Court, Lee oversaw a controversial 2014 case that disbanded the far-left Unified Progressive Party, concluding that its members sought to overthrow the country with the assistance of North Korea.
 
Lee Jung-mi, acting chief justice of the Constitutional Court, delivers the ruling confirming the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)

She mostly provided a majority view, including on the constitutionality of legislation banning a majority party from ramming through a hotly contested bill, and an anti-graft law that bars the members of civil agencies, private educational institutions and the media from giving and receiving free meals, presents or monetary gifts respectively worth 30,000 won ($27), 50,000 won and 100,000 won or higher.

But she upheld the adultery charge that was ruled unconstitutional in a 7-2 vote in 2015, saying it helps protect the social system of marriage based on monogamy, as well as the family community.

Following former court President Park Han-chul’s retirement last January, the takeover of the top job placed Lee in the nationwide spotlight. But it also brought immense political and public pressure from both camps for and against the impeachment, with Park supporters circulating her home address online and churning out threats to attack her.

Lee will continue to be guarded by police around the clock even after her retirement, due to persistent safety concerns.

Nonetheless, she left a crucial mark in the country’s history at the doorstep of her retirement with the historic ruling.

The hair roller episode shored up her image as a hardworking, devoted professional, in contrast to the disgraced former president whose perfect hairdo at a delayed public appearance during the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking incurred the wrath of the people.

Delivering the impeachment verdict, Lee called for reconciliation and an end to the deepening national divide, stressing the significance of the rule of law as a “value that must be protected in any case.”

“We hope this will serve as a foundation for us to put an end to a further split in public opinion and take the path of reconciliation and healing.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)