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A matter of common sense

Oct 12,2019
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Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s brother, suspected of involvement in corruption at a private school foundation that has been run by Cho’s family, leaves a detention center in Seoul on Wednesday after a judge refused a request for a warrant to detain him for further investigation. [NEWS1]
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Park Jai-hyun
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

At the massive Oct. 9 rally in Gwanghwamun Square, the person who provoked the anger of protestors as much as controversial Justice Minister Cho Kuk was Myeong Jae-kwon, a judge in charge of warrant review at the Seoul Central District Court. They expressed distrust in the judiciary, as well as the judge himself, by holding signs that read, “A loach-like judge making trouble!”, “A politically inclined judge!” and “How can you deny an arrest warrant based on inconsistent standards?” The judge rejected a warrant to detain Cho’s brother earlier that day.

As political controversy over the investigation into Cho intensifies, the judges appeared to make an unfair decision. The warrant rejection was enough to incur political misunderstanding and distrust as it coincidentally came immediately after Yang Jung-chul — President Moon Jae-in’s close friend and the director of the Institute for Democracy — asked for the reform of the judiciary and pointed out that the courts were overissuing warrants. Courts have issued arrest warrants for all suspects who admitted charges and gave up warrant validity reviews in the past.

So, how should I interpret the change in direction for Cho’s brother? Even though a considerable part of the accusations was confirmed through extensive evidence collection, why did the judge say his charges are contested? How can judges advocate a strict and fair legal process when the puppets who delivered money were arrested and the main culprit who took the money was released? Why does unexpected luck continue to come through for the Cho family? The values of fairness and justice have long disappeared in this administration.

Of course, people’s complaints and anger should not affect the decisions of the judiciary. A judge at the Seoul High Court explained that judges generally work hard not to consider ideology and political factions when ruling on a case and prepare based on law and principles regardless of ideological confrontation or social and political motivations. Therefore, a normal judge would be appalled if they felt political pressure.

Did Myeong feel appalled because of the pressure? I find it doubtful considering his pattern of issuing warrants so far. He issued an arrest warrant on former Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae for power abuse and also allowed a search on two former chief justices. However, he denied detention warrants for all people involved in the Cho Kuk case. Why did he apply a double standard to the power abuse and corruption cases involving the current administration?

Whenever a judge’s decision becomes controversial, the judiciary uses sublime words like law, principle and conscience. What goes through law and conscience must be conviction and belief in justice. Using complicated legal theories and systems on what average people think is wrong and making a different decision is the same as looking down on the people. When the judge uses abstract words and says, “You should know better,” should the people simply nod?

The warrant validity review was first introduced in 1997, as arresting a suspect based only on a report written by the prosecutors could violate human rights. As the warrant issuance rate fell from 90 percent to 70 to 80 percent, the system suggests that the court is abiding by the principles of human rights protection. However, there are also demands to improve the system, as some people say that three or four judges in charge of warrant reviews decide the fate of the suspects. Controversy over fairness was constantly raised over corruption cases involving power, just as absolute power corrupts absolutely.

During the authoritarian government, a prosecutor who requested a warrant used to review it with the judge on duty over dinner. We remember the savage era when people from the same law school were trained at the Judicial Research and Training Institute together and plotted on issuing warrants together.

In the stubborn Moon Jae-in administration, I am seriously worried that political power replaced the prosecutor. The time has come to discuss democratic control of the courts’ legal review. Just like Kim Byung-ro — Korea’s first chief justice — the court should not neglect the wish for justice for the “people on the street.”

The Cho Kuk case is a matter of common sense, not brilliant legal philosophy or sophistry.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 11, Page 32