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[Editorial] Chief justice’s silence

Judge reps demand chief justice explain biased personnel measures

An organization of judge representatives is said to have asked the National Court Administration under the Supreme Court early this month to explain Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su’s allegedly biased personnel measures.

It is the first time that judges have officially raised issue with the chief justice’s personnel decisions.

Kim has assigned important posts and cases to judges belonging to two progressive study groups -- one for the study of Korean law and the other for the study of international human rights law.

As an example, judge representatives cited that a former chief judge of the Seoul Central District Court remained in office for three years. It is a judiciary personnel principle to rotate district court chief judges every two years. The judge is a founding member of the Korean law study group. The Seoul Central District Court handles most politically high-profile cases.

Judge representatives also cited an unprecedented direct transfer of the Busan Eastern Branch Court chief judge to the Seoul Central District Court. It goes against custom to transfer a branch court chief judge directly to the Seoul Central District Court, where judges generally prefer to work. The judge is a former member of the human rights law study group.

The cases indicate that judges of particular factions were treated preferentially in personnel affairs. Kim was the leader of the two groups.

Last year, he retained a senior judge of the Seoul Central District Court in office for the fourth straight year. He broke the custom of senior judges working in the same district court for a maximum of three years. The judge belonged to the Korean law study group. The judge took charge of a case where some officials of the presidential office were accused of intervening in a mayoral election. The judge dawdled, holding only pretrial hearings for the space of more than a year.

Critics say Kim’s biased personnel measures are aimed at conducting trials favorably for defendants close to the government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

Judge representatives held meetings in 2017 to discuss allegations that the court administration under former Chief Justice and Kim’s predecessor Yang Sung-tae blacklisted judges. Later, the meetings were formalized as a standing organization of judges.

The organization was friendly to the chief justice, but as his lopsided job assignment increasingly frustrated judges, it demanded late last year that he follow personnel standards and customs. This time, it became outspoken in criticizing his bias.

Kim has been embroiled in several controversies over inappropriate conduct.

He diverted some budget items in order to renovate the chief justice’s official residence at a total cost of over 1.6 billion won ($1.3 million). He let his son and his daughter-in-law move in and live together using facilities of the official residence rent-free until they paid for a new apartment under construction in Seoul. Kim also let his daughter-in-law host a dinner party for her colleagues at the official residence. Criticism mounted, but Kim kept his silence.

He rejected a senior judge’s resignation in a one-on-one meeting. He said that if he accepted it, the ruling party could not impeach the judge and would blame the chief justice. The judge made public what Kim told him, and Kim denied it. Then the judge disclosed his recording of the dialogue. Calls for Kim’s explanation mounted but still he kept silent.

It is hard to expect judges to trust a chief justice who behaves inappropriately and favors judges of particular factions with particular political leanings.

Kim mentioned nothing about the issue of his personnel bias raised by judge representatives. The court administration under him is said to have avoided answering concretely. It is the chief justice who assigns judges to posts.

Nobody but Kim can best explain personnel issues.

And yet he keeps silent this time, too. Silence will only deepen distrust and conflicts.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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