For the first time in the history of the South Korean Constitution, judges representing courts across the nation have effectively resolved to impeach their colleagues.
A national council of judges announced Monday that impeachment needs to be considered for judges alleged to have abused their authority during the tenure of former President Park Geun-hye.
The council representatives essentially urged the National Assembly to impeach other judges. The judicial branch is now embroiled in a political maelstrom.
The results of the vote were 53 in favor of the resolution, 43 against and nine abstentions. If one more representative had voted against the resolution, it would have been thrown out. Clearly, opinion on the council was sharply divided.
The resolution amounts to a call for the political conviction of any judges suspected of involvement in the abuse of judicial administrative authority. This means judges, who above all are supposed to uphold the presumption of innocence, have abandoned that principle.
It seems hasty and inappropriate to demand impeachment over a case that is currently under investigation by the prosecution. The resolution gives rise to concerns that the judiciary is becoming a political organization.
The matter of judges abusing their authority came to the forefront early last year when a judge alleged that an official with the National Court Administration had told him that documents on “problem judges” were stored on its computers. In other words, he alleged that judges had been blacklisted by the court administration, an agency overseen by the Supreme Court chief justice.
Internal investigations determined that the claim was groundless. Then another suspicion was raised -- this time about intervention in trials.
It was alleged that judges who belonged to the court administration under former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae had discussed trials with government officials working under President Park Geun-hye and had conveyed their opinions to trial judges.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, appointed by President Moon Jae-in, ordered internal investigations, but the investigators found it difficult to punish any of the suspected judges criminally.
And yet Kim did not acknowledge the results of the investigation, instead effectively asking the prosecution to investigate by promising to cooperate with a future investigation.
More than five months have passed since the prosecution launched its investigation. And even before the prosecution has done its work, the judiciary has raised the issue of impeachment.
At the judges’ council meeting, the representatives did not name specific colleagues whom they wished to see impeached. But if they are arguing for the impeachment of other judges, they should be expected to come up with a full list.
The impeachment of judges must be dealt with prudently and on objective grounds.
Judges can be impeached when sufficient evidence is given to show that they have violated the Constitution and other laws. But no such violations have been cited, only the “abuse of judicial administration authority.”
It is not clear who should be considered impeachable. There are no criteria to determine which behaviors constitute abuses of a judge’s authority.
Also, it is questionable whether the judges present at the council meeting truly represent the views of the judicial branch as a whole.
Some of the council representatives are said to have voted for the resolution even though they knew it was opposed by many of their fellow district court judges in the jurisdictions they represented.
About 50 incumbent judges are reportedly implicated in the abuse of authority case. The investigation of judges by prosecutors is a serious matter.
The suspected judges have a long way to go before the prosecution’s investigation and all the related court trials end.
The ruling party and three opposition parties -- all but the main opposition Liberty Korea Party -- have already proposed a bill to create a special tribunal to rule on the matter.
Political disputes over judicial issues have become inevitable.
With a debate on impeachment now in the political arena in addition to the special tribunal issue, conflicts in the judiciary are bound to get deeper. The judiciary will be thrown into disarray. The harder the judiciary tries to resolve the issue politically, the stronger the jolt it will receive.
If the judiciary descends into chaos, it is the people who will be collateral damage.