There was a collective sigh of relief on Thursday after the Supreme Court rejected the final appeals of former judges convicted of bribery in two scandals that rocked the nation three years ago. With the cases having now run their course of appeals, there is hope that the door can be closed on a very messy saga that besmirched the nation’s legal system.
The revelations in 2010 that several Taiwan High Court judges were suspected of taking bribes to interfere in cases before them led then-Judicial Yuan president Lai In-jaw (賴英照) to resign and was the impetus for the establishment of an anti-corruption watchdog, the Agency Against Corruption, in July 2011.
Yesterday’s ruling means that former High Court judges Tsai Kuang-chih (蔡光治), Chen Jung-ho (陳榮和), Lee Chun-ti (李春地) and Fang A-sheng (房阿生) will have to serve lengthy prison terms: 20 years for Tsai, 18 for Chen, 11-and-a-half years for Lee and 10-and-a-half years for Fang, as well as pay hefty fines.
Another former High Court judge, Chang Ping-lung (張炳龍), had been sentenced to prison for bribing Tsai and Fang to clear him of corruption charges in 2005. However, he fled to China before he could be jailed and has never returned. Even exile in China may not be severe enough to cover his misdeeds in office.
An investigation into the judges in the wake of the scandal revealed that Tsai and Chen often met with mistresses in restaurants or hotels during office hours. In the same year, the Control Yuan impeached former High Court judge Yang Ping-chen (楊炳禎) for soliciting prostitutes and gambling during office hours. He was also suspended by the Judicial Yuan.
While long prison terms for former judges should send a message to those now practicing law on either side of the bench, those who hope for better days and better judges — like the 16-year-old Judicial Reform Foundation — say there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
Take the example of Hu Ching-pin (胡景彬), a judge at the Taichung branch of the High Court who earlier this year was accused of soliciting a bribe of NT$4.5 million (US$150,000) from a defendant in a case before him. Hu first faced criminal charges in 1996 for investing in shady banking practices. After charges were filed against him, he was transferred from Taichung to Tainan and suspended from office for three years by the Judicial Yuan, but was allowed to return to the bench in 2000 because his case was still under appeal. He lost that appeal in 2001 and more than a decade later, he is in trouble again.
Just over two years ago, on June 14, 2011, the legislature finally passed the Judges’ Act (法官法), almost two decades after it was first proposed. The law established a system to evaluate judges and remove incompetent ones.
However, the old personal network still holds sway since the Judicial Yuan tribunal that oversees the discipline of judges is composed of senior judges and half the outside experts that sit on the Judicial Personnel Review Committee and the Evaluation Commission must be nominated by the Judicial Yuan.
A better system of evaluating judges is only a start. An improved system of selecting and training judges is needed, since the current two-year training program does not have a good track record in turning out judges who can accurately interpret laws, think for themselves and perform their job ethically.