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[Op-Ed] Lee Hoi-chang and Lee Yong-hoon

Posted May. 18, 2009 14:22,   


The controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Shin Young-chul was caught on the radar of minor conservative Liberty Forward Party Chairman Lee Hoi-chang, who is well-known for his strong commentary on political and social issues. At a party meeting and on a television program, former judge Lee said, "Collective action by judges cannot be justified no matter what. It is up to judges instead of the institution to protect judicial independence.” He added, “Genuine judicial independence has been protected by the conviction, courage and sacrifice of individual judges who must make their own rulings regardless of intervention from the Supreme Court chief justice.”

Lee got his first job on the bench in 1981 at age 46. He earned the reputation of being a single-minded judge since he frequently sided with the minority opinion in rulings made under a system of agreement from all justices. His comments hold significant weight given his previous career regardless of his recent performance as a politician. It would have been more desirable if Supreme Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon said those exact words earlier. Of course, a politician and the Supreme Court chief justice are different positions, but nevertheless, it is unusual for the latter to do nothing about the week-long collective action by judges undertaken in the form of "meetings."

When controversy over Shin’s intervention in trials was first raised in March, Lee Yong-hoon told reporters, “Judges should not be swayed by insignificant matters.” This was an appropriate and sharp-witted response as the chief of the judiciary. Unfortunately, his thoughts were not consistently delivered to judges. It was appropriate for Lee Yong-hoon to issue a "stern warning" to Shin, a measure within the boundaries of the recommendation from the Supreme Court’s ethics review panel.

If the chief justice continues to keep silent about the collective action of many judges in courts nationwide, however, his inaction could send "misleading" signs. If he remains silent on the collective backlash of judges over his decision not to discipline Shin, he could come off as tolerating "judicial populism." If he continues to keep mum about the outright disregard for his final decision that came after much thought and the crumbling order within the judiciary, the branch of government is failing miserably as an organization, let alone as a constitutional authority. The public could be led into believing that Lee Yong-hoon agrees with the judges involved in the collective action.

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