Find better candidate and seek Assembly’s cooperation
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s appointment has failed ― once again ― to cross the threshold of the National Assembly.
If the post had been a cabinet minister, Yoon might have ignored the result of the confirmation hearing, reduced to a perfunctory procedure, especially under his government, and stuck to his nominee.
This time around, however, he cannot do so.
The position at stake is the Supreme Court’s chief justice. Yoon and his aides must pick a new candidate, verify the nominee’s qualifications and win the approval of the parliament. The process will take at least a month, leaving a void at the top of the judicial branch. The public will suffer the most due to delayed trials, as the highest court cannot grant en banc reviews.
Rival political parties are blaming each other for the judicial impasse. The ruling camp is accusing the opposition of hampering state administration for partisan gain. The opposition is criticizing the administration for presenting a candidate who should not lead one of the nation’s three pillars.
Last Friday, the Assembly rejected Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee Lee Gyun-ryong. It was the second such rejection following one in 1988 ― and the first case of the candidate failing due to personal flaws. Thirty-five years ago, the no vote was for political reasons, as the candidate had cooperated with military rulers. The latest rejection was attributable to the nominee’s failure to meet ethical and professional standards.
Above all, Lee revealed obnoxious opaqueness in financial matters. He was accused of willfully underreporting assets he and his family owned for many years in the annual asset disclosures of ranking officials while serving as a high court judge. Addressing lawmakers who questioned him at the hearing, Lee kept saying he was not aware of changes in laws and decrees. “How could a judge of nearly 30 years not know so many laws?” an exasperated opposition legislator asked.
Lee’s track record is also far from impressive. He reduced the sentences of offenders convicted of sex crimes or domestic violence multiple times, revealing poor gender sensitivity. During his four years as the chief of district high courts, he ranked at the bottom in eight multi-faceted evaluations conducted by court officials. Nor is his historical perception correct. At a parliamentary audit, Lee replied that the Republic of Korea was born in 1948, instead of 1919 when the government-in-exile began work in Shanghai, China, as stipulated in the Constitution.
The conservative judge also drew the public’s attention recently. He was one of the most vocal critics of the progressive chief justice, Kim Myeong-su, whose six-year term ended last month.
Kim’s Supreme Court left some memorable rulings. It called for the Japanese government to compensate Koreans who were forced into labor for the empire during WWII. Kim’s court also guaranteed disabled people’s rights to mobility, recognized conscientious objectors and expanded the scope of sexual violence.
Lee’s criticism of the progressive chief justice and his avowed respect for “freedom” might have caught the eye of a like-minded president. Rumors in legal circles also say the failed candidate is an “FOAF” (or friend of a friend) of Yoon, although they have no verifiable personal relations.
We hope the president severs these personal and quasi-personal ties in selecting a new candidate. True, chief executives want to sit a person who is politically and ideologically close to them at the top judicial post. Yoon will be no exception. Especially when the top court is sometimes forced to determine key election results in this era of shaky democracy.
However, the public’s trust in the highest court has almost hit rock bottom under the two previous chief justices for either influencing trials or enacting half-baked reform. When one political party dominates the three branches of the government, or even tries to do so, democracy cannot survive.
The public will endure a temporary judicial vacuum over watching an unqualified chief justice for six years.
If he has any compassion for the people, Yoon must select a clean, capable and centrist candidate while seeking cooperation from his political opponents.