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[Op-Ed] Assigned Judge

Posted February. 21, 2009 16:03,   


In Korean judicial history, fewer judges have presided over major cases in succession than the late former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yoo Tae-heung. He was the assigned judge in the trials of President Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1980 and Kim Dae-jung’s alleged treason in 1981. The intent of the military government led by then President Chun Doo-hwan was reflected in the process of selecting the chief justice. Under Yoo’s leadership, rulings were promptly issued to confirm death sentences on intelligence chief Kim Jae-kyu, who assassinated Park, and on former President Kim. Perhaps because of his contributions, Yoo became chief justice of the Supreme Court before his seniors in 1981. His predecessor Lee Yeong-seop had prematurely resigned two years after assuming the post, leaving with the words “regret and shame.”

In the Supreme Court, the assigned judge usually has significant influence on rulings. This is because he or she knows the case better than anyone else after having supervised the review of judicial precedents and drafting statements on rulings. In a trial based on unanimity at high and district courts of three judges each, the assigned judge presides over the cases while the other two split other cases to serve as assigned judges. Though the opinions of the assigned judge are respected, judges engage in intense disputes if they disagree, and the assigned judge coordinates the final ruling in the end.

The assigned judge is at the center of a controversy after a Seoul court rejected a lawsuit filed by 2,400 people against the producers of the MBC investigative TV news magazine “PD Notebook.” The program distorted and exaggerated fears over mad cow disease. The assigned judge is the daughter of Chun Jung-bae, a lawmaker with the main opposition Democratic Party. Chun marched in candlelight vigils last year and submitted a bill to revise laws to legalize such protests. The court ruling said, “Even if ‘PD Notebook’ inflicted mental damage on viewers, the show cannot be held accountable. There is also no evidence suggesting that the show triggered the candlelight vigils.” If prosecutors go after the MBC program and get a guilty verdict, this civil suit could produce a different result.

The civic group Lawyers for Citizens, which filed the suit, sought in vain to change the assigned judge in the case, saying, “Since the assigned judge is the daughter of Rep. Chun, who openly advocated the candlelight vigils, a fair trial cannot be expected.” It is difficult to directly connect this incident to the fairness of a trial since a father and daughter could have differing views and because the case is not directly related with her father. If the chief justice named one of the other two assistant judges as the assigned judge and reached the same ruling, the court could have avoided controversy over the fairness of the ruling.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)