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[Newsmaker] Supreme Court in hot water over blacklist, political bias allegations

By Choi He-suk

Published : Jan. 24, 2018 - 16:19

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The Supreme Court is facing increasing heat over allegedly surveilling judges and accusations of bending to political pressure.

It had been alleged that the National Court Administration surveilled judges, and compiled a list detailing their character and actions. The allegations have sparked speculations that a blacklist -- much like that of cultural figures drawn up by the Culture Ministry during the Park Geun-hye administration -- had been compiled.

Supreme Court in southern Seoul. Yonhap Supreme Court in southern Seoul. Yonhap

In connection with the allegations, a civic group filed criminal complaints against a number of former top judges, including former Supreme Court chief Yang Seung-tae, in May last year.

On Monday, a probe committee charged with looking into alleged irregularities in the Supreme Court’s activities during the Park administration announced the results of its investigation.

Although the committee did not explicitly confirm the existence of a blacklist of judges, the announcement appears to have done little in the way of dousing the controversy.

While the committee did not use the term “blacklist,” it confirmed that documents containing information about individual judges were found in computers used by the National Court Administration.

In addition, the committee found records of the Supreme Court’s communications with Park’s presidential office regarding former National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon’s trial.

While some in the judiciary claim that the documents cannot be considered a blacklist, others are calling for a criminal investigation into the allegations.

In a statement Wednesday, Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su apologized to the public, saying he is aware of the damages to the courts’ credibility. 

“If we have the will to reform, and worries about the future, now is the time to show them,” Kim wrote in a statement, adding that he would ensure that “follow-up measures befitting the findings of the committee” will be taken.

The existence of a blacklist may remain ambiguous for the time being, but the prosecutors’ office appears to be preparing for a possible investigation. According to reports, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has assigned two cases concerning the Supreme Court to a single department.

The cases concern a complaint filed against Yang by a civic group, and the complaint filed by main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s Rep. Joo Kwang-deok against incumbent Supreme Court chief Kim Meong-soo and the probe committee. Joo accuses Kim and the committee of abusing their authority, violating privacy regulations and dereliction of duty.

For now, the prosecution maintains that an investigation is not imminent but the reassignment of the cases are being seen as the first step in related preparations.

While the controversy continues unabated, the Supreme Court justices hit back at a news reports of the top court being influenced by the former administration during Won’s trial.

Following the committee’s announcement Monday, news reports emerged that the Supreme Court overruled a lower court in a case on Won’s involvement in the NIS’ alleged meddling in the 2012 presidential election under pressure from Cheong Wa Dae.

At the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling in July 2015, Won had been sentenced to a three-year jail term. The ruling is reported to have incited “strong displeasure” from Woo Byung-woo, former civil affairs aide to Park, and Cheong Wa Dae and the National Court Administration are said to have exchanged communications on the matter before the Supreme Court’s ruling in July 2015.

On Tuesday, all 13 Supreme Court justices held a meeting and announced that related news reports were false and that the justices were not contacted from within or outside the judiciary.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)