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Chief justice vows to overhaul judiciary

First step likely to be a reshuffling of the administrative office
Jan 25,2018
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Kim Myeong-su
Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su said Wednesday he will overhaul a judiciary administrative office following revelations that it had implemented policies against liberal judges and fed sensitive trial information to the Blue House during Park Geun-hye’s presidency.

Kim issued his statement to members of the judiciary to address recent findings by an internal investigation that the National Court Administration had indiscriminately collected information about judges and possibly violated judicial impartiality. Kim had ordered the 64-day probe last year to investigate allegations that his predecessor, Yang Sung-tae, managed a blacklist of judges critical of the judiciary’s leadership.

“The essence of the judiciary is trials,” Kim said. “Judicial administration exists to offer necessary support to and protect the independence of judges in order to secure fairness in court. Judges are not subjects to be managed by the judicial administrative office, but to be helped.”

Kim promised to take necessary follow-up measures based on the probe’s outcome, promising to establish an internal organ to address the issue. As an immediate measure, Kim said he will restructure the National Court Administration, whose current members were largely appointed by his predecessor, Yang.

In the long term, Kim also promised to create a neutral office that will guarantee the independence of judges and reassess the scope of the National Court Administration’s operation. He also vowed to reduce the number of judges serving the office.

The National Court Administration handles the daily operation and administrative duties of the judicial branch, including the assignment of trials to Supreme Court benches and assisting the Supreme Court chief justice on personnel appointments.

The office, composed of 37 elite judges, is considered important when it comes to promotions because of its proximity to the Supreme Court chief justice. According to a survey by Kyunghyang Shinmun last year, all the 456 judges who served the office from September 2005 to September 2017 were promoted to be senior judges of high courts, a stepping stone to head a district court or to join the Supreme Court bench.

The latest internal probe ordered by Kim uncovered a series of suspicious activities conducted by the National Court Administration during the leadership of Chief Justice Yang. According to the probe’s outcome, there was no actual blacklist, but the administrative office created reports in 2015 and 2016 that could have violated the independence of judges, particularly those who were members of a liberal research group.

According to the panel, reports created by the office showed that it exchanged information with the Park Blue House in 2015 about the appeals trial of Won Sei-hoon, former head of the National Intelligence Service, who was accused of interfering in the 2012 presidential election.

At the time, an appeals trial was ongoing over Won’s conviction for running cyber campaigns against Park’s rival, Moon Jae-in. Moon was narrowly defeated by Park in the 2012 race, but won the 2017 snap election after Park’s impeachment for corruption and abuse of power.

According to the panel, the Blue House inquired with the National Court Administration about the prospect of the trial, expressing its hope that the case would be dismissed. After Won’s conviction was upheld, the Blue House expressed its dissatisfaction to the National Court Administration and demanded that the case be sent to the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench, the top court’s highest decision-making body.

The case was assigned to the Grand Bench, and in July 2015, the Bench sent the case back to the high court for a retrial.

Following the revelation, all 13 Supreme Court justices except for Kim issued a statement on Tuesday, denying that the top court had been influenced by the Blue House and saying Won’s appeal was reviewed by a petty bench of the Supreme Court and then sent to the Grand Bench due to its social and political importance.

“We want to make clear that judges on the case were never contacted by anyone inside or outside the judiciary,” the justices said.

Of the 13 Supreme Court justices who participated in Won’s Grand Bench trial, six, including Yang, are now retired.

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