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Uniformity on the bench: Supreme Court continues to be dominated by elite males

Sangmin Lee

Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon has recommended to President Lee Myung-bak candidates for the new Supreme Court; however there is criticism that the recommendations lack diversity because all four are men whom graduated from Seoul National University (SNU) School of Law which is the nation’s top university.

“Diversity on the bench” is the golden rule in the United States of America. It is necessary to reflect various voices from all levels of society for achieving democratic justification.

After Barack Obama became president of the U.S., he appointed Sonia Sotomayor, a former judge in the Court of Appeals one of the first Hispanic and third female to take the seat. Along with Elena Kagan the former president of Harvard Law School who was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court to the United States and the fourth female. Both nominations were followed by the principle of bringing more diversity and perspective.

In comparison to the United States Supreme Court, the South Korean Supreme Court lacks diversity in terms of the composition of its members. Currently, the fourteen sitting Supreme Court justices, including the eight Constitutional Court, only Kim Ji-hyung justice comes from a University that is not SNU; he’s from the Wonkwang University of Law. Taking a closer look at the origin, twelve of the fourteen justices are career judges, and one is a former prosecutor and the other a former law professor. Justice Chon Soo-an is now the only female judge on the court after the other woman on the court, Justice Kim Young-ran, retired last August. Kim was appointed as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court in 2004, reflecting the demands of diversity on the bench. These patterns are most prevalent in states’ highest courts.

A lawyer stated “Most of the Supreme Court justices are men aged between the late 50’s and early 60’s that spent most of their lives reading lawsuits and judged in the courtroom. Accordingly, under the influence of similar backgrounds and experiences, the decision of the court also has been almost identical.

The Korean Women’s Association United (KWAU) announced a statement about the recommendation of Supreme Court’s candidates. “It is a matter of sincere regret that none of women candidates were nominated. In order to solve an imbalance between men and women, nominating commissioners should recommend at least 50% of women candidates and the president also gives the priority to the women in appointing justice at both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.”

The Human Rights Solidarity for New Society announced a statement of censuring the recommendation of four candidates and requiring entire reformation of the process of nomination.

The causes for this lack of diversity vary. First, nominating commissioners may underestimate, consciously or unconsciously, the ability of women candidates. Korea was traditionally patriarchal society. It has been dramatically changed in many respects, with the increase of the entry of women in public affairs compared with the past. But the formidable barriers in a famously conservative sector of public services still exist.

Second, it is closely related to typical Korean culture, “elitism”. Korea society is a slave to the ‘first place’ in most areas. It leads to pursuing an elite education system. The Korean proverb “The end justifies the means” shows one of the aspects of Korean society. The rules of seniority are also largely respected underlying the society in selecting and promoting adequate candidates.

There was a voice that this year can be the “most opportune for varying the composition of the members of the court with different backgrounds in the highest judicial authority” in situations which five Supreme Court justices, including the Chief Justice and 3 justices in the Constitutional Court’s term is nearing expiration. However, Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon’s decision to recommend four new judges is going against the current of the times.

When those courts don’t consider the demands of the diversity on the bench, they can hardly obtain the credibility from the people.

Courtesy of Joongang Ilbo

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