Outgoing Constitutional Court Judge Says Impeachment Trial Must End by March 13 to Ensure Fairness
SEOUL, Jan. 25 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye's impeachment trial has to end by March 13 to ensure a fair ruling with the participation of as many justices as possible, the chief of the Constitutional Court said Wednesday.
The top court has been conducting a trial since December to determine whether to reinstate or formally remove the impeached president for her alleged abuse of power. It has until early June to decide, but many have expected the ruling to come sooner with two of the nine justices nearing the end of their terms.
In his last hearing as the court's chief justice, Park Han-chul noted that his own term ends on Jan. 31 while that of fellow Justice Lee Jung-mi ends on March 13.'
"A decision by the Constitutional Court is made after intense debate among the nine justices, so each justice carries enormous significance," he said at the start of the ninth hearing of the trial held at the court. "In the event of an additional vacancy of a justice, this does not simply mean the absence of one person, but can lead to a distorted ruling."
He then added, "Before larger issues arise in the makeup of the Constitutional Court, a final decision must be announced no later than March 13."
Park was impeached by parliament last month for allegedly colluding with her friend Choi Soon-sil to extort money from conglomerates, including Samsung Group. Other charges include letting Choi meddle in state affairs and neglecting her duty during a deadly ferry sinking in 2014. The president has denied all charges and accused special prosecutors investigating the scandal of bias.
An impeachment ruling requires the participation of at least seven justices and the approval of at least six. If the court upholds the impeachment, South Korea will hold a presidential election within 60 days. If Park is reinstated, the election will be held in December as scheduled.
Park's lawyers immediately expressed their alarm at the court's first explicit mention of a date.
"If the Constitutional Court is voicing the opinion of parliament, we can only question the fairness of the trial," said Lee Joong-hwan, a lawyer representing Park, citing parliament's earlier estimates that a verdict could come in March.
The chief justice countered by slamming the lawyer for his "insulting" and "groundless" accusations against the court.
In a press conference after the hearing, Lee said that his team said they were "quite shocked" by the justice's remarks and argued that the trial must continue through the appointment of successors to the two outgoing justices.
A chief justice is appointed by the president after confirmation by parliament. While Park's presidential powers have been suspended, many are skeptical that Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn should involve himself so deeply in state affairs.
On the meaning of "a grave decision," which the lawyers mentioned during the hearing, Lee hinted that it could mean a boycott of the trial.
"It's hard to say in public, but it's obvious what a grave decision could be for a lawyer," he said.
Rep. Kwon Seong-dong, who heads a parliamentary panel serving as the prosecution, denounced the lawyers for their behavior.
"Talk of exceptional measures is not only aimed at hurting the fairness of the Constitutional Court, but also pressuring the people," he said in a separate press conference.
Rep. Lee Choon-suak of the panel argued that the "grave decision" would indicate the president's refusal to undergo the trial and reveal the "hidden toenails of the devil."
Park's lawyers have been accused of trying to stall the trial by requesting the testimonies of a growing number of witnesses in court. On Monday, they called for the summons of 39 more witnesses, but the court accepted only 10 and rejected the rest.
"We will file another request for the witnesses who were dropped with a fuller explanation," Lee, the lawyer, said. "We are only arguing that the Constitutional Court should not lose its impartiality in stressing speed."
If the court endorses Park's impeachment before March, the president could be forced to undergo the special prosecutors' investigation set to end on Feb. 28. While in office, she remains immune from prosecution.