A week after Taipei District Court Judge Chou Chan-chun (周占春) rejected a request by prosecutors to return former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to detention ahead of his trial, a panel of judges ordered on Dec. 25 that Judge Chou be replaced by Judge Tsai Shou-hsun (蔡守訓), who would preside over four new cases filed against Chen.
The reason for the change was that the latest cases are related to the “state affairs fund” case that Tsai had been handling. To streamline the litigation process and avoid divergent rulings, the court decided to combine the later cases with the “state affairs fund” case. Judge Chou, who was set to conduct the trial and had already sent out summonses, will no longer hear the case.
This appears to answer the thorny question of whether Chen’s cases should have been combined, and the judicial authorities are likely to be relieved by this reasoning.
But was Judge Chou, who has attracted a lot of attention by freeing Chen without bail and confirming that decision on appeal, really biased, as has been alleged?
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) criticized Judge Chou, saying that his record of detaining accused people did not meet human rights standards.
But Judge Lin Meng-huang (林孟皇), who is notable for his heavy sentence for Chen’s son-in-law, Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘), over a white-collar crime, pointed out that some of the information citied by Chiu Yi was flawed.
Just as widespread discussions were centering on why Judge Chou allowed Chen to go free pending trial, the court made a U-turn when five presiding judges held a review and decided to pass Judge Chou’s cases on to Judge Tsai, instantly removing him from the process.
The court’s distribution of cases is crucial in determining whether interference in the judiciary has taken place.
In the past, “manual” distribution of cases to judges was criticized for producing irregularities. Thanks to judicial reform activists, an automated system of case distribution was introduced. Because this greatly lowered the possibility of manipulation, it also allowed more room for judicial independence and fairness.
However, there are times when the automated system is not followed. For example, related cases can be combined if deemed necessary.
When the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Investigation Panel charged Chen with corruption on Dec. 12, the court should have prepared for a possible combining of cases. If there had been disagreements between the presiding judges, they could have held a meeting to decide whether or not to combine cases. They could also have taken the initiative to make a public announcement explaining the reasoning behind any decision.
Sadly, the court missed a golden opportunity to handle the issue in this way on the day that Chen was charged. No meeting was held to discuss combining cases until 10 days later. When the meeting was eventually held, the court reversed its original decision — and placed itself in a difficult position.
In light of present circumstances, it is difficult for the judiciary to maintain an objective and neutral appearance. With the sudden change of a presiding judge, it now seems impossible for the judiciary to avoid damage to its reputation.
Judicial credibility is accumulated incrementally. If outsiders are given room to meddle in the issue of whether cases should be combined, then I fear a judicial nightmare will follow.