The Constitution allows a spoils system in the judiciary, as it empowers the president to nominate the head of such powerful bodies as the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court. This has always been a source of dispute over the political neutrality and independence of the judiciary.
The Moon Jae-in administration is no exception. Moon’s nominations of Kim Yi-su as the head of the Constitutional Court and Lee You-jung as a new justice of the top court are deadlocked at the National Assembly due to obstruction by opposition parties.
Then Moon chose Kim Meong-su, a liberal senior judge who now heads the district court in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, as the new chief justice. The nomination defied the expectations of many.
First of all, Kim overtook many of his seniors in the court. At 58, he is 11 years junior in age to outgoing Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae. There is a 13-year gap between their years of service. Nine of the current Supreme Court justices began their career before the nominee. No doubt, Moon sought a generational change in the top court.
If his nomination is confirmed by the National Assembly, Kim would break a 48-year-old tradition in which the chief justice’s post went to a former or incumbent justice of the Supreme Court. This certainly is in line with Moon’s efforts to break away from tradition and the old frame.
So the message is clear. Moon, who was elected with a pledge to reform each and every sector of Korean society, wants the nominee to overhaul the judiciary. To be fair, there is no reason to save the judiciary from reforms.
Generally, Koreans have a low level of confidence in the judiciary, as it has been embroiled in intermittent corruption scandals involving judges and judges-turned-lawyers, as well as political disputes. A recent poll found that only 27 percent of Koreans trust the judiciary, and an index on trust in judges put Korea at No. 39 among 42 nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Some recent controversies have also raised questions about the high-handed administration of the court. Yang, whose six-year term ends next month, had faced some judges’ demand to resign over the allegations that senior officials interfered with academic activities of a group of progressive judges and even blacklisted judges critical of the court administration and chief justice. In relation to this, a judge in Incheon is holding a hunger strike for more than 10 days.
All these recent developments should not be taken lightly and Kim’s nomination as the leader and the top administrator of the judiciary branch may well reawaken the nation to the need to reform the judiciary branch.
For all the need for reform, however, what should be guarded against is the possibility of the entire judicial branch of government being drawn too much to the left. Moon’s selection of Kim as chief justice should ring alarm bells in that regard.
Moon, who broke the consecutive rule of two conservative leaders, seems to have picked Kim mainly because of the judge’s progressive perspective. And it is easy to believe Moon and Kim will try to install as many progressives as possible in the Supreme Court, where 10 more justices will have been replaced by the time Moon steps down from office. Obviously, the top court’s ideological balance, political neutrality and independence will be cast into doubt.
Article 103 of the Constitution stipulates that judges should follow the Constitution, law and regulations and their own conscience to declare judicial independence. Such independence is vital to protect the basic rights of citizens and ensure fairness, justice and rule of law in society.
The problem is past governments -- of the left and right alike -- have tried to interfere with the judicial independence in one way or another. The National Assembly should use Kim’s confirmation hearing to find out whether the nominee is committed to political neutrality and independence and how he will uphold duties imposed on the court by the Constitution.