The Constitutional Court on Thursday declared a law that prohibits filing a constitutional appeal against court rulings. The top court rejected 54 constitutional complaints filed by Baik Ki-wan, a veteran civic activist, and others, and dismissed their petition seeking cancellation of a Supreme Court ruling that did not recognize the state's responsibility for paying compensations to victims of old decrees implemented under a previous dictatorship government. The Constitutional Court's ruling is a reaffirmation of its April 2016 decision that a court decision is subject to a constitutional complaint only in cases where the judgment was made based on a law that was declared unconstitutional.
In March 2013, the highest court declared unconstitutional the Park Chung-hee administration's "emergency measures" that infringed upon citizen's constitutional rights. In the latest ruling, the court ruled that while the emergency measures were unconstitutional, the state is not responsible for paying compensation because the Supreme Court did not apply the unconstitutional regulation. It is meaningful that the Constitutional Court reaffirmed the standard for exceptionally allowing constitutional complaints against court rulings. However, there remains the possibility of conflicts between the two courts, as there are other pending constitutional petitions involving court rulings where laws that the Constitutional Court found unconstitutional were applied.
The two courts have repeatedly clashed over the effects of the Constitutional Court's limited unconstitutionality rulings. Limited unconstitutionality is an altered form of ruling in which the top court sets conditions for unconstitutionality. Even with a law is declared limitedly unconstitutional, the Supreme Court conduct trials by applying the same law, claiming that recognizing petitions against final court rulings involving limitedly unconstitutional laws would lead to retrial petitions, ultimately resulting in recognizing a four-level court system. If the Supreme Court refuses to recognize the Constitutional Court's ruling, there is no way to enforce the decisions. It is urgently needed to make legislative measures to prevent the confrontation between the two highest courts.
The Constitutional Court, which was founded 30 years ago, was a result of political compromise among politicians. At the time of the 1987 constitutional revision, the ruling camp agreed to adopt a constitutional petition system under the soon-to-be-established Constitutional Court in return for giving up the introduction of a body that would recommend the Supreme Court chief justice and justices. However, there were not sufficient discussions as to why court rulings should be excluded from constitutional petitions. At a time when fundamental changes are expected to occur in the judicial system and the statuses of the two highest courts, it is necessary to seek a public consensus again.
It was an extension of the two courts' turf war that the National Court Administration, an administrative body for the judiciary, under former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae attempted to steal sensitive information about the Constitutional Court. However, petitions against court rulings is not just a matter between the two courts but one that involves the people's rights and interests. It is necessary to draw a clear line about the authority and relationship between the two highest courts. The issue should be approached in a way that would provide a maximum guarantee of civil rights and liberty, rather than as a turf war between the two judiciary bodies.