When the Taipei District Court handed down its ruling last Friday, Ma’s lawyer made an interesting comment to the press. In his disappointment with the news, he turned to the reporters and said something to the effect of, “I hope no one ever says the courts are run by the KMT again.” This was a reference to an infamous statement from about 20 years ago.
Hsu Li-teh 徐立德, who was then Vice-Premier, Hsu Shui-teh 許水德, who was then KMT Secretary-General, told KMT members not to worry about the legal consequences of their actions because, after all, “the courts are run by the KMT 法院是國民黨開的。” The courts have done little to dispel this notion over the past 20 years. Again and again, KMT members seem to acquitted or given very light sentences while DPP members seem to get the harshest treatment possible under the law.
While Ma lost his case last week, that single case does very little to persuade me that the KMT is not improperly influencing the courts. On the one hand, one senior KMT figure lost to another KMT figure. Does that prove that the courts don’t give special treatment to the KMT? On the other hand, the pattern we have seen over the years is that the KMT loses in the lower courts and wins in the upper courts. Judges in the lower courts are much harder to control. They tend to be more recent graduates of law school and are trained in the latest legal theories and are more idealistic. The KMT loses lots of vote-buying cases in the lower courts because the judges there tend to be more honest (or so the theory goes). In the higher courts, things are different. The judges have been around a little longer and are less idealistic and more political. This is probably a selection effect, with the politically reliable ones getting promoted. The higher up the court system you go, the more political the court supposedly is. So it isn’t surprising that Ma lost in the lower court. Experience tells us that the higher courts will be more sympathetic to his arguments. Today, right on cue, High Court judges were randomly assigned to the case. Wang had asked for a public lottery, but the court insisted on doing it through a random computer process. Magically, the lead judge is married to a senior KMT figure who actually ran for the legislature under the KMT banner many years ago. The talk shows are abuzz questioning whether the assignment was really random.
Ironically, Ma insists that this whole case is about preventing political interference in the judicial system. Indeed, that is a problem. If the public really believed that Ma and the KMT were sincere about trying to prevent that from ever happening again, they would almost certainly enjoy enthusiastic public support. As it is, Ma’s lofty rhetoric juxtaposed with the actual record of court decisions favorable to the KMT merely serves to remind people of just how little the KMT actually seems to want an independent judiciary.