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Legislature can impeach judges, top court says

Feb 19,2019
The authority to launch impeachment procedures for sitting judges rests with the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court, according to a statement delivered to the legislature by the Supreme Court Sunday.

The statement was sent from the Supreme Court’s administrative arm - the National Court Administration - to a judicial subcommittee of the Assembly. It is effectively an admission by the country’s highest court that attempts by the legislature to impeach sitting judges would not infringe upon the independence of the judiciary.

Analysts interpret the letter as a signal from the Supreme Court that it would not stop lawmakers as they prepare impeachment bills for a handful of judges believed to be deeply involved in a major power abuse scandal that resulted in the arrest of former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae.

Regarding preparations for such a procedure, the statement read that the Supreme Court was “gravely aware” of the matter, but that it had no authority to comment on it. The court did clarify that it is planning to “look into further punishment and trial suspensions [for those involved] if necessary.”

The ruling Democratic Party (DP), which has been leading the campaign to impeach judges who were allegedly involved in the scandal, largely interpreted the Supreme Court’s response as a mere formality that would neither bolster nor hinder its plans to announce a list of five or six figures in the judiciary it would seek to strip of their status.

The DP’s junior partner in this endeavor, the leftist Justice Party (JP), already released a list of 10 judges last Thursday which it said must be impeached for meddling in politically sensitive trials at Yang’s behest.

Other opposition parties, however, remain hesitant or completely opposed to impeachment, given the implications it has on judicial independence. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) interpreted the Supreme Court statement as a flag of surrender from current Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su that could bolster the ruling party’s drive for impeachment.

But whether impeachment would actually be politically feasible is a different matter altogether. Putting an impeachment bill into motion in the legislature would require approval from at least a third of all sitting lawmakers, while passing it would require an absolute majority of at least 149 votes in the current Assembly.

While the DP and JP together control 133 seats, the other two minor opposition parties they must rally to their cause - the Party for Democracy and Peace and the Bareunmirae Party - have publicly voiced their reluctance to engage in the process before the judges receive prosecutorial indictments. Even if the impeachment bill passes with a legislative majority, impeachment would require approval from six of the nine justices on the Constitutional Court, much like the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye two years ago.

These massive hurdles have even led figures within the DP itself to question the likelihood of impeachment. DP Chairman Rep. Lee Hae-chan said last Wednesday that he was skeptical of the bill going forward, since the LKP chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee - who must act as the prosecution in a subsequent impeachment trial at the Constitutional Court - openly opposes impeachment.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, HYUN IL-HOON [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]