The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Normalize the judiciary

New chief justice‘s urgent task is to do away with serious trial delays

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 13, 2023 - 05:31

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The most urgent task for Chief Justice Cho Hee-dae, who was inaugurated in a ceremony Monday, is to do away with judiciary distrust stoked by his predecessor, Kim Myeong-su. Distrust of the court was fanned by trial delays, among other factors.

It took three years and nine months to issue first-trial sentences against former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and two years and five months for Yoon Mi-hyang, an independent lawmaker. Cho was indicted in connection with his children’s unlawful university admissions and his instructions to stop inspections into corruption allegations involving a senior public official. Yoon was charged with embezzling donations to a civic group for former Korean comfort women who were taken as wartime sex slaves for Japanese troops during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea.

It took three years and 10 months to convict defendants in the first trial of the Moon Jae-in Cheong Wa Dae’s alleged intervention in the Ulsan mayoral election. Thanks to the delayed trial, defendant Song Cheol-ho completed his four-year term as Ulsan mayor. Another defendant, Hwang Un-ha, who is an opposition party lawmaker, will likely complete his National Assembly term that ends in late May next year after the April general elections, considering the time required for appellate trials.

The more serious problem is that the court plays into the hands of defendants who try every possible delay tactic persistently.

Former Gyeonggi Province Vice Gov. Lee Hwa-young requested the substitution of the presiding judge suddenly in late October, as he stands trial for involvement in the Ssangbangwool Group’s illegal handover of money to North Korea. He was indicted in October last year.

The first-trial court took nine days to dismiss the request and the appellate court eight days, but the Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision on the request for more than two weeks.

The trial has been suspended pending final decision on the request for the replacement of the judge. The problem is that the presiding judge of the Lee case is scheduled to be replaced in February next year when regular personnel transfers are carried out. If the current judge fails to issue a ruling before then, a new bench will take over, and the trial will be delayed considerably. It is reasonable to regard Lee‘s request for a judge substitution as a tactic to avoid a decision by the current bench.

All of the four defendants who were indicted in March for following instructions from North Korea to act as spies in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, were released on bail on Dec. 7. They impeded the trial by employing every possible delay tactic. They requested a change of jurisdiction, a jury trial, substitution of judges and bail. They appealed whenever their requests were rejected. Eventually, the court provided bail before their detention for the first trial expired. All of the defendants in other spy ring cases were released in a similar fashion.

Measures to block attempts to delay trials intentionally are required.

Trial delays are not limited only to politically sensitive cases. The number of criminal cases where the initial trial is not finished within two years of indictment soared from 2,777 in 2018 to 5,346 last year. This problem is closely related to the court administration under Chief Justice Kim.

Kim appointed former members of a circle of left-leaning judges that he once led to important posts while transferring judges who issued rulings unfavorable for the regime of President Moon to unimportant posts. In this unprecedented situation, judges on Moon’s side delayed trials stubbornly.

Kim also abolished the existing merit-based promotion system and introduced a populist promotion system in which junior judges select candidates for court presidents by vote. Senior judges lost motivation to work hard, and instead had to focus on appeasing junior judges for their votes.

Cho, 66, is due to step down in three years and six months. He cannot serve out a six-year term because chief justices must retire at 70. The new chief justice has to eliminate the evils of the judiciary under his predecessor. He does not have much time. He must spur normalizing the judiciary.