Criticism over the South Korean Supreme Court’s failure to follow the rules in recent judicial appointments is growing. In the case of the Seoul Central District Court where a number of major cases are covered, a judge is allowed to serve in a department for up to two years, for a total of three years maximum. However, the issue of fairness has been raised as some judges who were in charge of sensitive cases, such as the suspected abuse of judicial administrative power and the case regarding former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk, remain in office exceeding these limits.
The period in which a judge can serve in a certain court or a judicial department is not set by law or rules. However, it is considered as an unwritten law to encourage the rotation of personnel and raise the predictability of appointments. It is also deeply associated with the independence of trials. For judges to “rule independently according to their conscience and in conformity with the Constitution and laws” as stipulated in the Constitution, judicial appointments should be made based on principle. “The fundamental goal of transparent personnel procedure and trail-centered personnel system is to ensure sound trails,” said Chief Justice Kim Myeong-soo.
However, the members of the judicial department in charge of the case of the suspected abuse of judicial administrative power surrounding Im Jong-heon, former assistant director of the National Court Administration, all remain in office. The judicial department’s presiding judge is serving in the same department for over five years with the two associate judges reaching their fourth and fifth year, respectively. The presiding judge in charge of the Cho Kuk case is going to serve in the same department for his fourth year. Meanwhile, the presiding judge of the criminal department of the Seoul High Court who usually serve in the position for two years was replaced just a year later after declaring Governor of South Gyeongsang Province Kim Kyung-soo guilty in his trial of an appeal. It’s hard to say that these were simple coincidences.
Some say that the recent appointments have a bigger impact on the judiciary than Chief Justice Kim’s lies about Court Senior Judge Lim Sung-geun’s impeachment. It’s also criticized as “personnel monopolization,” which shows that this is a palpable issue to judges. Personnel matters have a huge impact on the members of an organization, and courts are not exceptions to this. Once the personnel rules are broken, judges may feel the pressure to rule based on their beliefs to not upset those in charge of personnel decisions. This is why suspicion over the fairness of personnel appointments leads to suspicion over the fairness of rulings. The Supreme Court needs to explain its recent decisions for exceptions if there are justifiable reasons and correct them otherwise.