Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae on Thursday recommended Lee Gi-taek, head of the Seoul Western District Court, as the successor to a justice who is to retire in September. A justice is appointed by the president after parliamentary approval.
Lee was chosen from three final candidates selected by a recommendation committee earlier this week. They were all male senior judges in their 50s, who graduated from the same school -- Seoul National University’s College of Law.
Their selection has been met with a deep public disappointment, with critics raising doubt about the will and ability of the top court to diversify its monotonous composition unfit for reflecting changes in social values and trends.
The Supreme Court unveiled a list of 27 justice candidates last month before the recommendation panel began its screening process. The unprecedented move was seen as part of the top court’s efforts to ensure diversity and transparency in the selection process. Individuals and organizations were encouraged to express their opinions in written form on the qualifications of each candidate, and the recommendation committee was supposed to reflect the views in its work to select the final candidates.
The result of the selection work, however, has drawn criticism and cynicism that the introduction of the new procedure was nothing but a hollow gesture of reform.
Regardless of the final choice of the three candidates, there would be no change to the composition of the top court’s 14-member bench. All but one of the sitting justices are career judges, with 12 of them being male graduates from SNU’s College of Law.
If the Supreme Court bench is occupied by figures with similar backgrounds, it can hardly be expected that they will keep up with changes in social values and trends. Concern is already mounting that the top court is increasingly tilting toward conservative judgments in favor of the establishment.
Its monotonous composition is in sharp contrast with the diverse and balanced structure of the Supreme Courts in the U.S. and Japan. The nine-member U.S. Supreme Court is split between justices with conservative and liberal views with one justice taking a neutral stand. Japan’s 15-member top court is composed of six judges, four lawyers, two prosecutors and three nonlegal professionals.
This diverse and balanced composition has served as the solid foundation for putting forward rulings sensitive to social changes and attentive to rights for minority groups. Many Koreans felt perplexed when they saw Supreme Court justices making a 13-0 ruling on a couple of cases last month.
Announcing the result of its selection work, the recommendation committee said it had been difficult to find candidates qualified enough to become a justice, except for senior judges. Few people seem to accept this explanation. Proper candidates could have been found from among lawyers and other legal professionals if the committee had tried to depart from the past practice and diversify the composition of the top court.
It is necessary to change the current way of forming the recommendation panel, which puts the chief justice in a position to influence six of its 10 members. The parliament also needs to accelerate deliberation on a bill submitted by a ruling party lawmaker last year to fill half of the Supreme Court bench with legal professionals other than career judges.
The top court should recognize that changes will be enforced on the judiciary if it continues to turn a blind eye to public calls for diversifying its composition to ensure rulings that mirror society’s diverse values and protect rights for minority groups.