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Assembly to get rid of advisers from judiciary

Jan 18,2019
The National Assembly Secretariat announced Thursday it will do away with its long-established convention of using sitting judges recommended by the Supreme Court as legal advisers after it was revealed that these advisers were used by former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae to trade favors with lawmakers.

“The position of research fellow on the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, which has been normally filled by the judiciary, will now be filled by a member of the secretariat,” the legislature’s Secretary General Yoo In-tae told KBS News on Thursday. Yoo said this is because of an “issue regarding the separation of powers.”

The secretary general said he could not comment on the indictments issued Tuesday for the former deputy of the National Court Administration (NCA), the Supreme Court’s administrative body, who allegedly meddled in an ongoing trial in May 2015 at the behest of a sitting lawmaker, Democratic Party (DP) Rep. Seo Young-kyo.

The deputy, Lim Jong-hun, who is now under detention for a host of charges related to a massive power abuse scandal in Yang’s judiciary, received Seo’s request from an NCA judge dispatched to the National Assembly as a research fellow. Seo called the judge into her office and made the request personally, the fellow wrote in his email to Lim. Prosecutors are now using this as evidence to indict Lim on abuse of power.

That request involved changing the charge and lessening the sentence for the son of one of Seo’s acquaintances who was indicted for sexual assault. Lim took up her request and called the head of the Seoul Northern District Court, who relayed the message to the judge overseeing the case.

The criminal charge was not changed for the acquaintances’ son, but his sentence was eventually lightened from a prison term to a fine.

In exchange, the NCA likely wanted Seo to vote in favor of establishing a new court of appeals, Yang’s main goal as chief justice. As a member of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, Seo’s role was crucial to gain the legislative support necessary for such a major change to the judiciary.

The NCA is believed to have acted as the enforcer for Yang’s judicial agenda.

Seo was allegedly not the only lawmaker that the NCA tried to lobby. Lim is also accused of tampering with at least four other trials from 2015 to 2016 tied to then-sitting lawmakers, including Jun Byung-hun, who later went on to serve as President Moon Jae-in’s first senior secretary for political affairs. NCA reports also suggested lighter sentences for two other lawmakers from the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) who were on trial for campaign finance violations.

These latest revelations add an additional dimension to an ongoing judicial power abuse scandal involving unlawful collusion between Yang’s Supreme Court and the Park Geun-hye Blue House. Yang is accused, and reportedly soon will be indicted, for tampering with politically sensitive trials in line with the Park administration’s wishes.

Yang’s goal all the while was to establish the high appeals court, which he apparently believed would cement his legacy as a successful head of Korea’s judiciary.

It now appears some lawmakers had their own shady dealings with the judiciary that overstepped the separation of powers principle enshrined in the Constitution.

According to Seo Gi-ho, a former judge-turned-lawmaker who himself was the victim of Yang’s power abuse, the alleged transaction between Seo Young-kyo and Lim was “extremely serious” but “not at all surprising,“ since trading favors is common between judges and other people in power.

“This investigation has exposed only a fraction of the practice of ‘judicial solicitations,’ which have become almost conventional,” Seo Gi-ho said.

The judge dispatched to the National Assembly as an adviser was the primary conduit for requests, Seo added, citing cases in which lawmakers have asked for judicial leniency in court cases involving themselves or powerful people like major political donors.

The custom of the judiciary dispatching one of their own as a research fellow to the legislature dates back to 2002, when legislators created the position to receive legal advice from actual judges. While their official prerogative ends at an advisory capacity, these fellows actually deliver personal requests to the judiciary, according to Seo.

By the time they reach the end of their two year term and must return to the courts, they have usually built up a large personal network in the legislature that can help their career advancement, Seo said.

“While the principle behind the position is benign, based on just this one fact that it can be abused to infringe upon judicial independence warrants its abolition,” he added.

While Thursday’s announcement by the secretariat reduces the likelihood that sitting judges will be sent to the legislature for the time being, analysts say the issue also extends to incumbent prosecutors who are dispatched to the legislature in a similar capacity.

The prosecution has tried to lobby lawmakers for their interests in the past, sometimes colliding with judges in the process over jurisdiction disputes.

Whether such practices can be legally punished, however, remains unclear under current laws.

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