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[Editorial] Suspicions without merit

Judges refuse to discuss prosecution’s ‘surveillance,’ a key cause for disciplinary meeting

On Nov. 24, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae ordered the suspension of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and requested that disciplinary action be taken against him. At that time, she cited six suspicions.

But the ministry’s inspection committee found all of those suspicions groundless. The Seoul Administrative Court also cleared Yoon, allowing Yoon to return to his duties.

Five of the six reasons are false or fabricated. They are without merit. The suspicion that Yoon ordered a prosecutor to gather illegal information on some judges trying major cases is the remaining bone of contention.

Several judges raised issues with the document containing the information in question. They called a meeting of 120 judges representing courts across the nation Monday.

But about 80 percent of participants refused to discuss all seven of the original and revised proposals, which effectively said that they should announce a position that the “surveillance” document infringes upon the independence of judges and the impartiality of trials.

Ostensibly they cited concerns that their positions could be used politically if they were expressed. But if they believed that prosecutors eavesdropped or shadowed them to gather information illegally as Choo argues, they might have expressed a formal position.

Just as defense lawyers need to know the ruling styles of judges before entering trials, so do prosecutors. Most of the information in the document is open to the public, and rumors about the judges are said to have been gathered by asking prosecutors. This is hardly information collected through illegal surveillance.

The judges’ refusal to express their respective positions can be taken as acknowledgement that the prosecution did not snoop on judges. All six of the grounds for disciplinary action effectively vanished. Choo and her followers tried to stigmatize the document as evidence of illegal surveillance. It makes no sense to hold a groundless disciplinary meeting.

The regulation on the disciplinary committee is unfair. The justice minister can not only request disciplinary action, but can also nominate or appoint most members of the disciplinary committee.

The committee consists of the justice minister as chairperson, vice justice minister, two prosecutors nominated by the minister and three outsiders appointed by the minister.

The unfairness of the committee was recognized even by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. In September, the party revised the related law to increase the number of committee members from seven to nine, five of them being outsiders. Three of the five outsiders should be recommended by private-sector legal experts. The revised law is more reasonable and is scheduled to take effect Jan. 21. It makes no sense to try to punish the prosecutor general under a law set to be invalidated in about a month. The ministry has not even let Yoon know who the members of the disciplinary committee are.

Additionally, the new vice justice minister’s suitability for the committee have been called into question.

He has been photographed by news media exchanging messages with a policy adviser to the justice minister in the National Assembly.

The adviser asks Lee, “Will Yoon’s constitutional petition have an influence upon the outcome of the disciplinary meeting?” Lee replies, “That seems to be an unfavorable move to him.” The petition appears to refer to an appeal Yoon filed arguing that the law on disciplinary action was unfair.

A disciplinary panel member is supposed to stay neutral, like a judge who should try a case impartially. It is inappropriate for Lee to have such an exchange.

Earlier, Lee told reporters not to prejudge the conclusion of the disciplinary committee. He vowed to attend its meeting without prejudice. He says one thing and means another.

A ministry official who launched an inspection of Yoon reportedly used Lee’s office when he was a lawyer. The inspector is said to have done her work related to the inspection in his office.

At that time, Lee was counsel for former Trade, Industry and Energy Minister Paik Un-gyu, a key suspect in the alleged intentional underestimation of the economic validity of the Wolsong-1 nuclear reactor. Paik is suspected to have instructed ministry officials to manipulate its economic feasibility assessment, after Moon asked when the reactor would be closed for good.

Yoon faces an absurd situation where he has to vindicate himself in front of a former lawyer who represented a suspect to be investigated by the prosecution. Prosecutors are in a similar situation.

Lee is unqualified not only as a member of the disciplinary committee but also as vice justice minister.

The disciplinary committee set to open today has already lost procedural fairness and legitimacy. It is essentially null and void.
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