Although a recently concluded reinvestigation confirmed the National Court Administration did not blacklist judges, disturbances in the judiciary are not easily calmed.
New suspicions must be cleared, but the Supreme Court ought to move toward the resolution of conflicts, not fueling them with endless investigations.
A team created by Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su to reinvestigate blacklist allegations first raised and investigated in the days of the previous chief justice confirmed that the court administration monitored judges’ research activities and decision tendency. But it did not find evidence that any of the monitored judges suffered disadvantage by the administration.
However, the panel disclosed documents that aroused new suspicions of collusion between the Supreme Court justices and Cheong Wa Dae over its ruling on a case involving Won Sei-hoon, former director of the National Intelligence Service. Won is behind bars for using NIS funds to meddle in the 2012 presidential election by running teams to leave online political comments.
All 13 Supreme Court justices, except Chief Justice Kim, expressed regrets at the reinvestigation results in a rare statement, denying the suspicions.
Kim mentioned the need to investigate the suspicions when he explained his decision to dismiss Justice Kim So-young as chief of the court administration. The dismissal is a move to lay the foundation for another round of investigation into the administration.
Opinions were divided among judges, who traded criticisms and even blunt words on their own online bulletin board over whether to open by force 760 encrypted files the reinvestigation team couldn’t open to investigate the suspicions and possibly dig up more suspicions.
The organizational stability of the judicial branch is important not only to judges but to the public. Nevertheless, the suspicions raised in the reinvestigation cannot be ignored. According to the document in question which contains opinions exchanged between the administration and Cheong Wa Dae, a small group of justices first tried to hear Won’s case, but the bench expanded to include all justices as Woo Byung-woo, then senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, wanted, though it is not clear that the change was made at Woo’s instruction. The full bench ordered a retrial in 2015.
Investigations both internal and external look inevitable. Kim has already expressed his intention for an additional internal investigation. And as former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae was accused by a civic group of abusing his authority in connection with the monitoring of judges, the prosecution is weighing when to start investigating the court administration.
The judicial branch also faces both calls for elimination of irregularities and concerns about progressive judges trying to influence a reform drive for court administration.
In the days of military dictatorship, crisis in the judiciary was caused by pressure from outside, but now it comes from within, requiring it to try to gain public confidence in its independence through its own efforts.
Monitoring judges harms judicial independence. If misdeeds are found, those responsible must be brought to justice, and preventive measures be taken. But Chief Justice Kim must see to it that prejudice should have no place in investigations.
At the same time, Kim must heed concerns of continued investigations fueling conflicts among judges and distrust in the courts. Especially worrying are ideologically biased judges who seek to reform court affairs to their advantage. Four of six members of the reinvestigation team were judges belonging to a research group of progressive judges who study international human rights laws. Chief Justice Kim was a member of the group. He also appointed a judge belonging to the group as senior personnel manager of the court administration.
If Kim keeps filling major posts with members of the group, the impartiality of rulings and public trust in judges can be threatened.
Suspicions about the judiciary will damage people the most, as Kim said. They should be cleared, but court administration must be reformed to ensure people’s right to unbiased and independent trials.