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Supreme Court nominees could tilt bench to left

July 04,2018
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Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su submitted his recommendations on Monday to replace three justices who will step down next month.

The recommendations, two of them liberal and one moderate, will likely earn President Moon Jae-in’s approval as he seeks to stack the court with left-leaning judges. The nominees will then head to the National Assembly for confirmation hearings.

The three outgoing justices, all appointed by former President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, will complete their six-year terms next month. The nominees to replace them are Kim Seon-soo, a progressive lawyer who chairs the Lawyers for a Democratic Society; Lee Dong-won, the top judge at the Jeju District Court; and Noh Jeong-hee, a judge who currently serves as the head of the Supreme Court Library, which maintains records of court decisions.

Of the three, Kim is seen as the most liberal. He began his career as a labor rights lawyer in 1988, similar to Moon, who took on tough human rights cases when he a young lawyer.

Kim, too, took on controversial cases, defending the now-disbanded Unified Progressive Party in 2014. The Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve the party for its alleged pro-North Korea views. In his 2014 book, “I Defend Labor,” Kim wrote, “The most important role of a lawyer is to help clients so that they don’t bend their beliefs or feel despair.”

Noh could also tilt the court left. She is a member of a legal research group known for its progressive views. The third nominee, Lee, will likely be a swing vote.

Of the three, Kim faces the toughest path to confirmation. The largest opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party, has denounced his work for the Unified Progressive Party.

“It is hard to accept a justice nominee who has a low understanding of a group that tried to thwart the basic order of our democratic society,” the party said in a statement on Monday.

Confirmation requires a majority of the 300-member legislature to be present, and a majority of those present then have to vote yes. That means a justice could be confirmed with just 76 votes.

The Supreme Court’s current 13-member bench leans conservative, with nine of the justices appointed by previous administrations, but it could swing to the left under Moon. Already, he has appointed four justices.

By the end of his term in May 2022, Moon will be able to replace five more justices, making all but one justice his appointees. Justice Kim Jae-hyung, who was appointed in September 2016, will outlast Moon.

This bench could have the highest female representation in the Supreme Court’s history. If Noh is confirmed, she will join three other women already on the bench.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]