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Will Supreme Court turn right?

Six Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court justices appointed under the Roh Moo-hyun administration are scheduled to retire this year and are likely to be replaced with conservative figures.

The change of personnel is expected to create a stir within the judiciary, which has been accused of left-wing bias by the conservative administration and other politicians.

A committee under the Supreme Court on Tuesday submitted its recommendation of four candidates to succeed Justice Yang Sung-tae, who is to retire next month, to Lee Yong-hoon, chief of the nation’s top court.

They are Daegu District Court chief Kim Soo-hak; Office of Court Administration deputy director Lee Sang-hoon; Seoul Administrative Court chief Lee Jae-hong; and Seoul Central District Court chief Lee Jin-sung.

All of them are male graduates of Seoul National University who completed state-run lawyer training programs in 1980 or 1981. They are all classified as right-leaning compared to Yang.

“Whoever Lee nominates, he will be conservative and much more generous to the government than his predecessor. A justice of the Supreme Court is extremely influential because his or her words could set milestones for many other trials in the future. The appointment will set an example for personnel policies in the future,” said Jang Dong-yeob, researcher at the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.

Justices Lee Hong-hoon, Park Shi-hwan, Kim Ji-hyung, as well as Lee Yong-hoon will step down from their positions on the Supreme Court by November after serving their six-year tenures. Constitutional Court Justices Lee Kong-hyun and Cho Dae-hyun will also retire by the end of the year.

Appointed during Roh’s presidency, they were said to have issued liberal rulings.

With the six being replaced by the incumbent administration, two-thirds of the high-ranking positions in the two courts will be filled with conservative figures, observers say. They forecast that the replacement will create a top-down effect in the left-leaning judiciary.

The “reform” of the judiciary had been long-awaited in the conservative government and politicians who have regularly complained that rulings by “liberal judges” have been “shaking the base of the nation.”

In 2008, several local court judges cleared those who protested the government’s decision to resume imports of U.S. beef of the charges they faced.

Some also ruled that dozens of schoolteachers who issued statements denouncing the government’s four-river refurbishment project were not guilty.

The Constitutional Court was also at the center of disputes when the justices found a law banning nighttime rallies unconstitutional for the sake of freedom to express opinion and to assemble.

Condemnation reached its height when an appellate court earlier last year acquitted crew of MBC’s PD’s Notepad, which reported that people who consume U.S. beef could contract the human form of mad cow disease. The program is alleged to have triggered protests that have drawn up more than 2 million in less than three months and have dragged the support rate for the president to the lowest point of his term.

“It is a serious problem that young and inexperienced judges make rulings out of their own ideas. Their being politically biased could be a threat to the judiciary’s authority,” said Hong Joon-pyo, floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party.

The GNP Chairman Ahn Sang-soo announced a set of plans to “innovate” the judiciary circles. The bill, pending at the National Assembly, increases the number of Supreme Court Justices to 24 from the current 14 and allows appointment of “outsiders” to the top positions.

The reformation bill faced shrewd opposition for attempting to meddle or tame the judiciary. Still, the ruling party is determined to push for its passage this year, when many influential judges are likely to be replaced, political observers said.

“The nomination of candidates might be the start of a much larger blast to come,” Jang said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)
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