Domestic courts have shockingly rendered not guilty verdicts on a series of controversial cases, instilling confusion and tension in Koreans. Kang Ki-kap, chairman of the progressive Democratic Labor Party, was surprisingly acquitted of using violence at the National Assembly. Staff of the MBC TV investigative news program PD Notebook were also found not guilty despite distorting and exaggerating the safety of American beef. This has given the impression that the judiciary is out of touch with common sense.
On the rulings, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon had just one thing to say: I will protect the independence of the judiciary. The majority of Koreans, however, have questioned how Kang and the PD Notebook staff were acquitted. If the countrys top judge responds to the controversy with a single sentence instead of a proper answer, whom does the judiciary serve? Such a response is far from Lees slogan of the judiciary serving the people.
Judicial autonomy does not exist for judges. Rather, it enables them as the guardians of constitutional rule to follow the Constitution, laws and conscience when making rulings instead of yielding to internal or external pressure. Verdicts should be based on the Constitution, laws, legal precedents and conventional wisdom widely accepted by academics. They should not run counter to common sense. Legal experts have criticized the judges who made the controversial rulings for going against the Constitution and the law.
It is not surprising that the public has criticized the rulings, which are based on ideological bias and forced legal interpretation made by judges lacking sufficient experience. Lee should correct the mistakes of judges and trials, complement systemic weaknesses, and cooperate with legal experts to restore the peoples confidence in the judiciary. Sound criticism of improper rulings also does not constitute an attack on judicial autonomy.
In a broader sense, the judiciary has the duty of maintaining law and order. Lee should feel responsible for the criticism that the judiciary has encouraged violence by lawmakers at the National Assembly, the political aspirations of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union, and distortion of news reports. No judge should have a carefree attitude like If the ruling is improper, it can be corrected in the second or third trial.
In addition, members of a conservative organization should not protest in front of a judges home. If they threaten a judge because they reject his or her rulings, they could significantly damage judicial independence and constitutional rule. Reform of the judiciary should also be pursued after intensive discussions between judges and legal experts instead of being unilaterally pursued by a furious ruling party.