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[Op-Ed] Judiciary Favoritism

Posted December. 06, 2009 23:31,   


Giving favors to retired officials is a deep-rooted practice in the judiciary with a long history around the world. A system in China’s Ming Dynasty officially recognized the practice, giving benefits to retired officials who made major contributions to the country and their children. When the Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea, a common practice was for the government affairs and defense ministries to give preference to retired senior officials when recommending candidates for vacant posts. This naturally fueled politics of the power elite and partisan strife. It sounds logical that the centuries-old practice of favoring former senior officials led to the modern phenomenon of favoritism given to retired officials in the judiciary.

In Korea, controversy has flared over favoritism given to retired judges and prosecutors by law firms, which are competing to bring in retired senior judges and prosecutors. This is no different from the centuries-old practice of giving favoritism to retired officials. They include senior judges such as Supreme Court justices or the chiefs of district and high courts; department chiefs at those courts; and senior prosecutors. They are landing jobs paying hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per year because law firms seek to exploit their connections in trials. Lawyers who join the country’s top five law firms will do anything to make a fortune. A newly minted lawyer with a good academic record at the Judicial Research and Training Institute can earn a starting annual salary of 100 million won (85,000 U.S. dollars). After a certain period of employment, he or she can study abroad on the firm’s tab.

Critics say major law firms are too powerful, with one saying they can even name a Cabinet minister. One law firm gives the impression of another government as it has so many former top officials from previous administrations. Retired officials from economy-related ministries serve as “advisers” even if they have no legal license. A “revolving door lawyer” who moves back and forth from a law firm and a senior government post will have a strong capacity to solve problems. This is why critics blame law firms for the lack of judicial independence along with excessive political power. Influence-peddling scandals are another danger.

Major law firms retain an hierarchical organizational structure of lawyers based on their rankings as active officials, and on the class they graduated from at the judicial institute. They are also on par with the courts or prosecutors in the number of personnel. Judges and prosecutors are said to be wary of the stance of law firms. Large firms always participate in legal procedures involving conglomerates not only because of their expertise, but also because retired officials play huge roles in the cases. The Civil Servants Ethics Committee of the Supreme Court is moving to crack down on secret “job negotiations” between judges and law firms. Attention is on whether the committee can dismantle the “law firm insurance” that guarantees a better life for judges after their retirement.

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