The constitutional court is a tranquil yet elegant workplace where jurists and research officers busily do the work of the law. Of the eight justices who sit currently on the court, Lee Jung-Mi (’80, Law) is the only female justice. As the friendly staff showed us into the judge’s office, Lee greeted us with a tender smile.
After warmly greeting us, Lee displayed her wisdom as a woman and a jurist throughout the interview. Born in Ulsan in 1962 into a farming family, Lee “had to climb a small mountain for an hour to get to school every day and helped my parents with farm work in the scorching heat.” From those experiences, she learned diligence and tenacity, which later contributed greatly to her success.
Lee was an ordinary, hardworking student attending Masan Girls’ High School who dreamed of becoming a math teacher. However, the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, more often referred to as the Incident of October 26, became the turning point in Lee’s life. Citizens rose in revolts and Masan was at the center of demonstrations.“As the country was changing so rapidly, I began to contemplate what it is to live righteously and how Korean society can move in the right direction,” recalls Lee. That is how she chose to study the law.
After being admitted to Korea University (KU), she thought of becoming a prosecutor but soon discovered it did not match her character. “After the probationary period,I found out a prosecutor requires much strength and facing suspects was not my strong suit,” says Lee. After passing the bar examination in 1987, she worked as a justice in the judicial branch for 24 years before moving into the constitutional court. Reminiscing about the first court she presided over as a judge, Lee seemed to be lost in thought for a moment. She had been an associate judge for about eight years, which was more of a supportive role. “The most nervous moment was when I first became the chief judge,”says Lee. “As there were not many female judges, I was extremely nervous about how people would evaluate me and remained stiff throughout the trial. People then often looked down upon young, female judges, so I tried to be strict so as to prevent such attitudes.” She says that fortunately,she managed the trial fairly well without incident.
The young, nervous judge who worried about what people thought of her is now a veteran judge sitting on the constitutional court, which is regarded as the most trusted and respected institution in Korea. Comparing her 24 years in the judicial branch to her new position – she was appointed to the court in March 2011 – Lee says the two positions are similar but different in details. “In the judicial branch, the work revolves around a case and judging who is right or wrong by applying the law. Therefore, 90 percent of the office hours is put into revealing the facts,” says Lee.On the other hand, the facts are already fixed in the cases before the constitutional court. Thus, jurists there mainly investigate how the law was made, foreign examples, and citizens’ perceptions, eventually judging whether the law is contrary to the spirit of the constitution. “While the constitutional court is held once in a month, the rest of time is used in research.”
“Whenever I make a verdict, I think of the law, humans,and society.” The law exists to serve the people and thus needs to be applied based on each individual’s situation.“Trying to understand why one did something is fundamentally important. However, at the same time, we also need to consider the harmony between individuals and society. A jurists’ role is to find the balance between the two with the help of the law,” says Lee.
According to Lee, making right judgment becomes difficult when one keeps changing their mind and a judgment lacks consistency. “For an objective judgment, logical thinking is necessary. Still, judging only with logical thinking prevents one from seeing the other side of a person,”says Lee. “When living with common people who are accustomed to painless, trouble free life, we can lose ability to understand that people can be different, can have pains.Upon understanding the difference, we can sympathize with why they could not or had to do certain things. This sympathy is highly essential.” She values both impartiality and love, which can embrace all, as a jurist and a human being.
While some might expect that a female justice could have difficulties being objective when dealing with women’s issues and female plaintiffs or suspects, Lee says it is unlikely and very undesirable. “When you become a judge,you do not distinguish who is a man and who is a woman.Judges should deal rationally with all cases,” says Lee. However,domestic cases are often about man versus woman.When appearing before a female justice, men often worry if they are in a disadvantageous position from the start. However,Lee tries her best to be objective and if she begins to doubt herself, she asks her colleagues and tries to maintain impartiality.
As a KU graduate, she has much affection toward KU.“KU is a cornerstone for me. I spent my college days and studied law there. Since then, it has been the basis of my life.” Looking back on her past, Lee recalls herself as a quiet,shy, and hardworking student. “Studying for the bar exam was tough work. Friends went on blind dates and hung around until late hours. I envied them so much,” says Lee with a wistful smile. To fulfill her dream to become a jurist,she had to give up diverse experiences as a college student.“If I could go back to college days, I would try things I did not dare to do before, such as attending the theater and backpacking. I hope today’s law students enjoy a more diverse college experience. Maybe, they can go backpacking for a short period of time. The efficiency in studies will even increase.”
“For an objective judgment, logical thinking
is necessary. Still, judging only with
logical thinking prevents one from seeing
Though the College of Law has disappeared from Korean universities, there are still many students dreaming of entering law school and become jurists. However, as student shopping to enter law school are studying different majors and lack a clear path to working in the justice system,some feel confused about how to prepare for law school.Lee hesitated to offer advice; “I do not know well about law school but have seen several people from law schools in the constitutional court. There are so many excellent people that I do not feel the need to emphasize diligence and the so-called spec (specification).”Still, there is one thing Lee is concerned about; the prevalence of individualism.“I heard from my nephew, a KU student, that many college students frequently study and eat alone in college. It was a shock to me. When I was in college, we studied in groups. I am worried that today’s students are becoming more and more individualistic.”
Truly, it is easy to find students who study alone in the library or cafe and eat alone in order to save time and concentrate on studies better. “It might feel like that working alone is more efficient and advantageous, but I do not think so. No matter how successful we become, we can never be happy if the people surrounding us are not happy,” says Lee. “I hope more KU students learn to socialize with and become concerned about others. Empathizing with people and looking at the world from a wide perspective are highly crucial.”
Justice Lee understands the hardships and concerns students are having confronting their uncertain futures.She advises them to have a strong sense of confidence in themselves. “I have seen many people doubting their own abilities, asking, ‘Can I really do it?’ Of course, not all the things we dream of come true. We can fail, but we can overcome the failure. It is valuable to take on challenges even though you know you may fail,” says Lee. “You do not need to be apprehensive of the future. If you confidently strive to accomplish your dreams, they will come true.”