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(News Focus) Liberals expected to raise voices at Constitutional Court

Politics 19:11 April 19, 2019

SEOUL, April 19 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in's appointment of two new Constitutional Court justices on Friday is expected to bring some changes to the ideological spectrum of the top court's future rulings, legal experts and watchers said.

The addition of Lee Mi-sun and Moon Hyung-bae to the nine-member bench of the Constitutional Court increased the number of its non-conservative justices to seven, one more than the magic number needed to achieve a two-thirds majority.

The court requires at least six out of nine justices to decide on the constitutionality of cases brought before it. Besides its primary role of reviewing constitutionality, the top court also has crucial administrative law functions, such as ruling on competence disputes between governmental entities, giving final decisions on impeachments and making judgments on the dissolution of political parties.

Constitutional Court justices and other officials pose during a joint inauguration ceremony for new justices Moon Hyung-bae and Lee Mi-sun at the court in Seoul on April 19, 2019. (Yonhap)

The top court has steadily strengthened its progressive orientation since Moon's inauguration two years ago. Now only two justices, appointed during the previous presidency of Park Geun-hye, are considered conservatives. Two other conservative justices who retired on Thursday after six-year terms were replaced by Lee Mi-sun and Moon Hyung-bae, who are regarded as middle-of-the-road and liberal, respectively.

With seven of nine justices now considered non-conservatives, the direction of the top court's future constitutionality rulings is expected to change considerably, according to the legal experts and watchers.

As seen in its recent ruling against the anti-abortion law, the top court is expected to tilt to progressive stances on hotly debated social issues, such as punishment against homosexuals and abolition of the death penalty, they speculated.

For instance, the court ruled that Clause 92 of the Military Criminal Act outlawing homosexuals in the military is constitutional in a 5-to-4 ruling in 2016. But a constitutional petition on the same issue was filed in February 2017, and the case has since been pending at the top court.

Likewise, the court ruled that the death penalty conforms to the Constitution in a 5-to-4 ruling in 2010 but was recently asked to review the issue again.

In addition, a number of politically controversial issues, including the deployment of advanced anti-missile defense systems, increases to the minimum wage and the taxation of religious people, could be sent to the Constitutional Court.

With such fears in mind, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party warned in a spokesperson's statement Friday that the appointments of the two new justices, both of whom it categorized as liberal, will pave the way for the Moon administration's "liberal dictatorship."

This undated file photo shows the Constitutional Court in Seoul. (Yonhap)

But many constitutional scholars cautioned against any hasty move to determine the future path of Constitutional Court rulings by the political leanings of its justices.

They note that the court made constitutionality rulings on the death penalty and the punishment of military homosexuals during the administration of former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. Moreover, the court's mostly conservative justices ruled in favor of the presidential impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2017.

"The anti-abortion law, for instance, is considered as a matter of value, not a political issue. Any attempt to interpret the Constitutional Court's recent ruling on the anti-abortion law by the political leanings of its justices is not desirable," a professor at Yonsei University said.

Another law professor in Seoul called for lengthening the tenure of constitutional justices to nine years to ensure that the court remains free from political influence.
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