The administration of justice was the function of the courts as established under the Constitution and the much-amended Court Organization Law of 1949. A number of provisions of the 1987 Constitution were intended to improve judicial independence, which was long held, even within the judiciary itself, to be inadequate.
At the top of the court system in 1990 was the Supreme Court, whose justices served six-year terms, giving them a measure of independence from the president, whose single term was only five years (lower-level judges served ten-year terms.) All other judges were appointed by the Conference of Supreme Court Justices and the chief justice. This process reverses the more centralized appointment process that had been in place since the yusin system of 1972, in which the chief justice (under the direction of the president, in practice) appointed lower court judges. All but the chief justice may be reappointed. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in all cases, including courts-martial; except for death sentences, however, military trials under extraordinary martial law may not be appealed.
High Courts in Seoul, Kwangju, and Taegu hear appeals against decisions of lower courts in civil and criminal cases. They also may assume jurisdiction over litigation brought against government agencies or civil officials. Courts of first instance for most civil and criminal matters are the district courts in Seoul and major provincial cities. The Family Court in Seoul handles matrimonial, juvenile, and other family law matters; in other cities such issues are adjudicated in the district courts.
The Constitution divides responsibility for constitutional review of laws and administrative regulations between the Supreme Court and the Constitution Court. The Supreme Court reviews only regulations, decrees, and other enactments issued by the various ministries of other government agencies. The constitutionality or legality of the regulation to be reviewed must be at issue in an ongoing trial. The Constitution Court has much broader powers. It decides on the constitutionality of laws enacted by the National Assembly when requested by a court to aid in the resolution of a trial, or in response to a constitutional petition, which may be brought by any person who has exhausted available legal remedies. The Constitution Court also has exclusive power to rule on the dissolution of political parties and impeachment of the president, cabinet members, and other high officials. All nine members of the Constitution Court must be qualified to be judges. The president, National Assembly, and chief justice each select three members of the court's nine-member panel.
The Constitution Court began operation in late 1988. Unlike its predecessors, which since the early 1960s had made only three rulings, the new body gave rulings in 400 of the more than 500 cases considered during its first year. Most of the cases heard were constitutional petitions. In a series of major decisions, the court declared unconstitutional a law prohibiting creditors from suing the government, directed the National Assembly to revise a portion of the National Assembly Law requiring independent candidates to pay twice the deposit of partyaffiliated candidates, declared the Act Concerning Protection of Society unconstitutional, and upheld the constitutionality of a law prohibiting third-party involvement in labor disputes.
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