On Wednesday, the Supreme Court acquitted three judges who had been accused of judicial administrative power abuse under the judiciary headed by former Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae. Accused on the charge of divulgence of official secrets, Judge Cho Eui-yeon and Judge Seong Chang-ho, who were in charge of issuing arrest warrants at Seoul Central District Court in 2016 when the so-called “Jeong Un-ho scandal” broke out, reported matters related to the prosecution’s investigation of judges implicated in corruption to then-Criminal Senior Presiding Judge Shin Gwang-yeol, and Shin reported it to then-Vice Minister of the National Court Administration Lim Jong-heon. The lower court, however, determined that the judges’ reporting constituted a part of their official duties, and the Supreme Court upheld such lower court ruling.
In 2018, the prosecution launched an extensive investigation of the allegations of judicial abuse of power and indicted 14 former and incumbent judges, including Yang and Lim. Of those 14 accused judges, former Senior Supreme Court Judicial Researcher Yoo Hae-yong was found innocent by the Supreme Court last month, which has acquitted four judges so far. Former Busan High Court Presiding Judge Lim Seong-geun and three other judges were also found not guilty at the first instance trial or the second instance trial. Despite the prosecution’s exhaustive mobilization of its most elite forces at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, more than a half of the accused were acquitted at the Supreme Court or found innocent at the lower court.
The accused, however, has not entirely been exempt from culpability for abuse of judicial administrative power. The court pointed out that Judge Shin “acquired information beyond the permissible bounds of [his authority],” thus partly admitting the inappropriateness of the exchange of information between him and other judges, although not recognizing the criminality of such action. Former Deputy Minister for the National Court Administration Lee Min-geol and one other judge were found guilty of interfering with legal proceedings concerned with the now dissolved Unified Progressive Party at the first instance trial. Not only is it absolutely intolerable, but the court should have taken disciplinary measures by itself before the prosecution commenced investigation. Yet former Chief Justice Yang and the leading members of the judiciary are standing trial on the charge of orchestrating the interference with trials and covering up corruption by judges. No doubt South Koreans have lost their confidence in the judiciary.
Yet the prosecution’s fault in resulting in a pile of acquittal judgments does not become any lighter. Although the exchange of information by Presiding Judge Shin and others was already disclosed to the public, raising concerns over whether it falls under the category of official secrets, the prosecution pushed ahead with indictment, making itself utterly indefensible from the criticism that it recklessly pursued criminal prosecution of the accused judges, driven by political motives of taking advantage of the societal demand for eliminating corruption. The judges accused of judiciary power abuse have either resigned from office or have been excluded from presiding over trials. Their disgraced reputation will hardly be recovered, even if they are acquitted. The prosecution should bitterly regret ,its responsibility for causing irrecoverable harm by excessively exercising prosecutorial power.