SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- Concerns are growing that the Constitutional Court will fall into a "vegetative" state without the court's chief in place. Song Doo-hwan, the acting chief of the court, is to retire on Friday following his six-year stint, adding fuel to the negative impact on the institution and the public that has also arisen from the nearly two-month absence of the court's chief.
With Song's departure and the chief's vacancy, the nine-member court will be relegated to a seven-justice system, which could virtually make it unable to lay rulings on the constitutionality of laws. It needs more than six justices for the court to lay a ruling that a law is against the Constitution. Therefore, there could a situation in which the court would be unable to rule any laws are unconstitutional if just two of the seven justices were opposed to the unconstitutionality of them. In fact, no single ruling on the unconstitutionality of laws was given by the court last month.
The vacancy of the court's chief and its negative impact was mainly caused by a face-off between the National Assembly and the nominee for the Constitutional Court chief. The court has been without a leader since the previous chief retired at the end of January. But the nominee, Lee Dong-heub, resigned on February 13 only weeks after coming under pressure following allegations of a string of ethical lapses, including tax evasion and property speculation. His resignation followed a two-day confirmation hearing at the National Assembly, in which lawmakers grilled him over the allegations. Despite public pressure to resign, Lee refused to back down and even said in several media interviews that he would not withdraw his nomination.
Since Lee's Feb. 23 resignation, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae has yet to nominate someone for the post and a replacement for Song. If the timing of confirmation hearings for the posts is taken into account, the seven-member system of the court is likely to persist for a considerable amount of time.
The Constitutional Court serves as a crucial constitutional body dealing with the basis of the country's existence as it decides on whether laws are valid in terms of the Constitution, rules on disputes between state entities and regional governments, and hands down judgments on the dissolution of political parties. It also adjudicates constitutional complaints filed by individuals and gives final decisions on impeachments. In 2003, the court, acting on a complaint from conservative opponents, ruled that the nation's capital must remain in Seoul over the Roh Moo-hyun government's legislative bill for the relocation of the administrative capital.
At the court are a number of important pending bills, including ones on the constitutionality of now-defunct emergency decrees proclaimed decades ago by then President Park Chung-hee and on keeping the country's decades-old anti-adultery law. The court, which is stuck in limbo over the absence of its leader, has been hampered in handling these bills. In other words, the failure of its mission -- ruling on whether laws are constitutional to protect people's basic rights -- shakes itself to the roots of its existence.
The president and the National Assembly should pay serious attention to the need of nominating and approving, respectively, a new leader of the court in a quicker manner, so that the fallouts from the court's state of limbo are minimized. In a statement, the Korean Bar Association has said, "The National Assembly and the government are carrying their insult on the constitutional institution too far," calling for an early organization of the court's proper setup. It is urged for the administration and parliament to show respect to the Constitutional Court as they are to blame for the vacuum at the court.
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