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(LEAD) Chief justice nominee grilled over political orientation, credentials

2017/09/12 16:07

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(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 17-18)

SEOUL, Sept. 12 (Yonhap) -- Supreme Court Chief nominee Kim Meong-su came under intense parliamentary scrutiny over his political orientation and job credentials Tuesday, with the ruling party scrambling to shield him from scathing opposition attacks.

During his confirmation hearing, conservative parties cast Kim as another "liberal-leaning" addition to the top court, raising doubts over his political neutrality, while the Democratic Party (DP) pitched him as a figure well suited to spearhead judicial reform.

The hearing came just a day after the National Assembly voted down a confirmation motion for Constitutional Court Chief designate Kim Yi-su. The rejection dealt a stinging blow to the DP and emboldened its rivals intent on keeping it in check.

At issue was Kim's previous role in leading a group of liberal judges. Thus, President Moon Jae-in's designation of Kim has caused consternation among conservatives that fear it could fuel the judiciary's swing to the left.

Kim's 2015 ruling in favor of a progressive teachers' union further reinforced the argument that the nominee appears politically skewed and thus incapable of rendering aboveboard rulings.

"Take a look at how the judiciary would be politicized... If he is appointed, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, Constitutional Court, Justice Ministry and Supreme Court will be replete with figures with the same (political) colors and views," Rep. Jun Hee-kyung of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) said.

Rep. Lee Che-ik of the same party warned that "citizens would not condone" it if the judicial nomination process is driven by political considerations.

The nominee denied that the group of judges he once led was weighted heavily in favor of the liberals.

"The judges in the group are free to join and leave it, and given the large number of the members, it is difficult to say that the group as a whole has any specific political orientation," Kim said.

Supreme Court Chief nominee Kim Meong-su attends a parliamentary confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on Sept. 12, 2017. (Yonhap) Supreme Court Chief nominee Kim Meong-su attends a parliamentary confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on Sept. 12, 2017. (Yonhap)

He also brushed aside concerns about his political neutrality.

"I have heard that political circles took issue with my ideological orientation ... But as a lawman, that kind of classification is improper, and any court ruling ought to be meted out based on the factual content of each case," Kim said.

The nominee went on to say he has no particular ties with either the president or his chief secretary handling judicial affairs.

"I believe what is most necessary (to be the chief justice) is the will to safeguard the judiciary from the influence of all external powers," Kim said.

DP lawmakers came to the defense of the nominee, accusing the opposition parties of "an objection for the sake of objection."

   "Things appear to be drifting into an ideological polemic as (opposition parties) frame (the nominee) as the leftist or an ideological figure to that effect," DP lawmaker Ki Dong-min said.

"The hearing should be a vetting process to figure out if he is the right person for judicial reform, not an ideological verification," he added.

During his opening remarks, Kim vowed to root out still rampant "special treatment" for judges-turned-lawyers to ensure the fairness of judicial deliberations and shore up public trust.

"Citizens want a judiciary that gives comfort to the socially weak and is stern before those in power," Kim said. "The task for the chief justice is to put into action those things citizens want one by one."

   Kim's appointment requires consent from a majority of lawmakers present during a floor vote that can be set up by a majority of all 299 legislators. The ruling party holds only 120 seats, necessitating opposition support.