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Impeachment of judges idea supported by ruling party

Nov 21,2018
The National Assembly remains split over an unprecedented proposal to impeach sitting judges implicated in a power abuse scandal dating back to the previous administration.

The legislature is being asked to respond to Monday’s decision by a council of representatives of district courts across the country recommending the impeachment of sitting judges accused of helping ex-Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae win presidential favor by exerting influence over high-profile trials, among other forms of misconduct.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) welcomed the move on Tuesday, adding that it would immediately commence internal discussions into putting an impeachment bill forward.

“We highly appreciate that self-reflecting and reformist voices were raised within the judiciary,” Hong Young-pyo, the DP’s floor leader, said at a meeting with party officials. “Now is the time for the National Assembly to answer.”

Liberal-leaning lawmakers advocating judicial reform said that the judges’ decision has given traction to their goal of punishing misdeeds by judges with impeachment, which was previously considered an extreme measure that could violate the principle of the separation of powers.

There is a constitutional route to such impeachments.

Approval by a third of the current 299-member parliament would enable a motion to impeach individual judges to be debated and then voted on in a plenary session. A majority vote in favor would send the matter to the Constitutional Court for review.

As in last year’s case for the removal of President Park Geun-hye, six of the nine judges on the Constitutional Court would need to uphold the impeachments for the judges to be dismissed from their posts.

But there are many controversial elements to the idea, above all, who would identify the judges to be impeached by the National Assembly. The number of sitting judges implicated in the Yang Sung-tae scandal widely differ.

The current Supreme Court under its new chief, Kim Myoung-su, has listed 13 judges who should face disciplinary action for their involvement in the scandal, while a prominent legal civic group has cited only six. No serving judge has yet been indicted in the scandal, although one former judge has. His indictment listed over 30 fellow judges involved in the scandal.

The biggest question is the independence of the judicial branch as a whole.

The conservative-leaning opposition parties - the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and Bareunmirae Party (BP) - fiercely oppose impeachments on those grounds. LKP floor leader Kim Sung-tae called the proposal a “kangaroo-court style witch hunt,” while BP floor leader Kim Kwan-young argued it was premature given that a criminal investigation into the scandal was still underway.

The currently fractured state of the legislature - with the liberals and conservatives each holding seats just shy of a majority - would mean that passage of the motion would be dependent on independent lawmakers, of which there are currently seven.

Analysts say the chances of impeachments appear dim since individual lawmakers may disagree with their party’s stances.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, YONHAP [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]