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Judges start deliberations on Park Geun-hye’s final fate

Mar 01,2017
The countdown for the Constitutional Court’s ruling on President Park Geun-hye’s political fate began Tuesday as justices started their deliberation on the National Assembly’s impeachment of the disgraced leader.

Eight justices of the Constitutional Court including Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi held their first conference in the morning to discuss the case. The judges heard the closing arguments of Park and the National Assembly’s impeachment committee, which acted as the prosecution in the trial, on Monday for nearly seven hours.

Park was impeached on Dec. 9 for alleged constitutional and criminal violations over the influence she gave to her secret inner circle, including longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, in state affairs. She was also accused of failing to protect more than 300 people’s lives during the Sewol ferry’s sinking in April 2014.

The court had its first preliminary conference on Dec. 22. It had a total of 20 hearings through Monday, including three preliminary conferences.

Park started the trial with about 10 lawyers. She kept adding attorneys until her team, by Monday, comprised 17 lawyers. She did not attend her own trial.

Throughout the trial, Park’s lawyers requested 90 witnesses take the stand and 36 of them were agreed to by the National Assembly impeachment committee. Only 25 actually showed up to testify. The witnesses were questioned about the 13 grounds that the National Assembly cited to impeach her. A 32,000-page special investigation report by prosecutors was offered to the court for the trial.

The eight judges will review testimony of the 25 witnesses and evidence and opinions submitted from both sides during their deliberations. The deliberations, according to the law governing the court, are only participated in by the judges - no aides and no recording secretary. The deliberations are kept secret.

Because Chief Justice Park Han-chul retired last month during the trial, eight judges will participate in the deliberations. Justice Kang Il-won, selected to referee the trial, will start the deliberations with a presentation. Judges, then, freely discuss the case.

It has been a practice of the Constitutional Court that the referee in the case presents his opinion first. The remaining judges relate their opinions in the inverse order of their appointment dates. Acting Chief Justice Lee will give her opinion last.

Following deliberations, a vote will take place. There is no deadline to wrap up the deliberations and announce a ruling. “The judges will likely meet everyday,” said an official of the Constitutional Court.

Anticipation is high that the ruling will be announced by March 13, 2017, before Acting Chief Justice Lee ends her term. “Despite Park’s lawyers’ protest, the court wrapped up the hearings on Monday,” said Choi Jin-nyung, a lawyer in Seoul. “This means they want to rule before Lee retires.”

The Constitutional Court took two weeks in 2004 to rule on the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun, which it reversed. “Park’s trial took longer than Roh’s, and there were many witnesses,” a lawyer who formerly worked as a researcher of the Constitutional Court told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Therefore, the judges actually had more time to review the case.”

Some analysts, however, say this case is more complex than Roh’s and the deliberations may take longer.

Because of the extreme sensitivity of the case, the judges will likely write both verdicts - one to permanently remove Park from office and the other to restore her presidency - and then hold the vote. Insiders said the vote may take place on the day of the announcement of the ruling.

The law governing the Constitutional Court was revised in June 2005 to require each judge’s opinion to be made public in the verdict. How the public could react to the ruling could, therefore, affect how the judges vote, experts say.

In the legal community, Acting Justice Lee and Justices Kang and Kim Yi-su are considered centrist or liberal, while the remaining five - Justices Lee Jin-sung, Kim Chang-jong, Ahn Chang-ho, Seo Ki-seog and Cho Yong-ho - are considered conservative.

Throughout her career, Lee has ruled in favor of the vulnerable in society. Justice Kang is remembered for his liberal opinion in a constitutional trial over the punishment of sex industry workers. He said that criminal punishment of women who are selling sex for survival is excessive.

Justice Kim Yi-su was appointed in 2012 by the Unified Democratic Party, the predecessor of the main liberal opposition Democratic Party. He was the only member of the Constitutional Court who opposed the Park administration’s petition to dissolve the Unified Progressive Party for its alleged pro-North Korea doctrine. After the petition was filed in November 2013, the court ruled 8-1 in favor of the party’s dissolution in December 2014.

Among the eight judges, two - Justices Cho and Seo - were appointed by President Park in 2013. They are both known for conservative rulings.

Justice Ahn, appointed by the conservative ruling party in 2012, is a former prosecutor who handled public security cases throughout his career.

Justice Kim Chang-jong, appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae in 2012, has long served in the courts of North Gyeongsang and Daegu, the political hometown of the president. In the constitutional trial for the sex industry worker case, he ruled that punishing prostitutes is constitutional.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]