Chief justice nominee Lee Gyun
South Korea's top judiciary post is vacant for the first time in 35 years as the National Assembly, where the opposition holds the majority, voted down the nomination of Lee Gyun-yong for chief justice on Friday.
The assembly voted 175-118 against the nomination of Lee as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Korea. Two lawmakers abstained. Lee's approval would have required 148 votes in favor, as 295 lawmakers were present at the plenary session.
All 168 lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea agreed to vote consistently with the party line adopted Friday to reject the motion to confirm Lee. The six minor opposition Justice Party lawmakers also agreed to reject the motion.
On the other hand, the 111 ruling People Power Party lawmakers agreed to vote according the opposite party line to pass the motion, but lost.
The opposition cited past controversies over Lee's rulings as a judge that exonerated both a sex offender and an individual allegedly involved in the manipulation of judicial affairs, as well as Lee's failure to declare assets worth about 1 billion won ($740,740).
Lee became the first chief justice nominee to have failed to get the parliamentary nod since 1988 during the former Roh Tae-woo administration.
President Yoon Suk Yeol's office expressed "deep regret over the lengthy judiciary (leadership) void" in a statement Friday immediately after the decision.
"The motion's failure to get confirmation was due to the unilateral opposition of the opposition party," Yoon's office spokesperson Lee Do-woon said.
"We express deep regret over the lengthy judiciary (leadership) void caused by (the opposition party's action to) vote down the motion to name a well-rounded and proficient judge (as the chief justice). ... Citizens have fallen victim to this political warfare that is holding their rights (to a speedy trial) hostage," said spokesperson Lee.
Before the vote on the Thursday, Lee Gyun-yong had asked the parliament in a written statement to vote in favor of confirming him, saying that the judicial system would otherwise come to a standstill. After the decision on Friday, he expressed his hopes to reporters that the leadership void might be filled swiftly to avoid a disruption in Korea's judicial system.
Ruling People Power Party's spokesperson Yoo Sang-bum had said before the vote Thursday that the post could remain vacant "for at least two months" should the parliament reject the confirmation motion of Lee. President Yoon will have to start the process to name a new nominee and gain approval again.
The previous chief justice, Kim Myeong-su, ended his six-year term on Sept. 22, and it is first time since 1993 that the Supreme Court is operating with the chief justice position vacant.
Out of the 12 Supreme Court justices, two more of the current 11, including the acting chief justice, are set to retire on Jan. 1, 2024.
In Korea, the chief justice of the Supreme Court ranks third in terms of order of precedence, following the president and speaker of the National Assembly.