Court has 6 months to rule on motion

President Park Geun Hye's powers have been suspended after lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to impeach her over an influence-peddling scandal that has rocked South Korea and now pushed it into a period of political uncertainty.
President Park Geun Hye's powers have been suspended after lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to impeach her over an influence-peddling scandal that has rocked South Korea and now pushed it into a period of political uncertainty.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

SEOUL • The nine-judge Constitutional Court has up to six months to uphold or overturn yesterday's impeachment motion against South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

It will hear arguments from the two sides - the chair of Parliament's Judiciary Committee for the impeachment motion and lawyers representing Ms Park - in open hearings before delivering its ruling.

Legal experts said the case against Ms Park looks strong, while the overwhelming public mood is for her to quit, with massive weekly protests calling for her resignation and a single-digit approval rating.

But the conservative make-up of the Constitutional Court would appear to be in the President's favour. For her to be impeached, at least six judges must uphold the motion.

The terms of two justices are set to expire soon - one on Jan 31 and the other on March 13 - and experts said it is unlikely that their replacements would be appointed amid the political crisis, potentially leaving just seven judges, the minimum required.

A smaller Bench works in Ms Park's favour because the number of judges needed to uphold the impeachment motion remains at six.

"Two judges retiring is like two judges voting for overturning," said Seoul National University law professor Chon Jong Ik, who served as the court's spokesman during the impeachment trial of then President Roh Moo Hyun in 2004.

In Mr Roh's case, the impeachment was unpopular with the public and the Constitutional Court overturned the motion.

However, Mr Ha Kyung Chull, who led Mr Roh's team of lawyers at the trial, said the case against Ms Park - that she allowed a friend to meddle illegally in government affairs - appears to be strong. Mr Ha, who served on the Constitutional Court from 1999 to 2004 before entering private practice, said there were "clear grounds to support impeachment".

All nine Constitutional Court judges are appointed by the President, but three are recommended by the Supreme Court Chief Justice and another three by Parliament.

Though the current Bench is considered largely conservative, it may not be enough to help Ms Park.

"Park keeps putting herself ahead of the people, making things complicated," said former justice Kim Jong Dae.

"I believe the judges will make a decision based on their love of the country and conscience."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Court has 6 months to rule on motion'. Print Edition | Subscribe