Constitutional Court Hints at Early March Ruling, President Park's Legal Team in Time Crunch
SEOUL, Feb. 16 (Yonhap) -- The Constitutional Court said Thursday it plans to conclude President Park Geun-hye's impeachment hearings next week, prompting speculation that a ruling could come in early March.
Park was impeached in December over allegations she let her friend Choi Soon-sil meddle in state affairs and colluded with her to extort money from conglomerates. The president has denied the charges.'
"The court plans to conclude the hearings on Feb. 24 after completing the questioning of witnesses," acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said during the 14th hearing. "I ask both sides to submit their final statements by Feb. 23 and prepare for the final defense during the hearing on Feb. 24."
Park's lawyers protested the announcement, saying even "ordinary trials" allow for more time between the submission of the final statement and the final oral defense.
Justice Kang Il-won, the lead justice for the case, refused to reverse the decision immediately but offered to discuss their argument with the other justices should they submit it in writing.
"The Constitutional Court has been pressed for time and set the date for the final hearing in a rush," Lee Joong-hwan, an attorney for Park, said in a press conference after the hearing. "It's very dangerous if the Constitutional Court reaches a decision in a short period of time without sufficient review."
Meanwhile, Rep. Kwon Seong-dong of the parliamentary impeachment panel welcomed the court's announcement, saying he hopes the justices maintain their position and bring a swift conclusion to the nation's political turmoil.
If the final hearing is held on or around Feb. 24, expectations are high that the court will deliver its verdict before March 13, before the retirement date of the acting chief justice.
Justices are expected to finalize the proceedings over a period of 10-14 days before casting a vote to determine the president's fate. Her ouster requires the approval of at least six justices. There are currently eight following the retirement of Chief Justice Park Han-chul last month.
March 10 is seen as a likely date for the court's ruling, as it is the last working day before Lee's retirement.
If Park is removed from office, South Korea is required to hold a presidential by-election within 60 days. If she is reinstated, the election will be held in December as scheduled.
For Park, a ruling after March 13 heightens the chances of her reinstatement, as only two justices will have to reject her impeachment instead of three. It is also expected to help her avoid interrogation by special prosecutors who are digging into the scandal under a Feb. 28 deadline. While in office, the president is immune from prosecution.
Her lawyers have been accused of delaying the proceedings by repeatedly requesting additional hearings.
Whether Park will attend the final hearing has also been a focus of the trial. While some say it could have a positive impact on the court's decision and on public opinion, others worry she could be grilled by the justices and the parliamentary panel, which could be to her disadvantage.
Park's lawyers said they will discuss the issue with the president but ruled out the possibility of her being questioned.