After he had convicted seven police officers of assault on pro-democracy activist Ken Tsang last week, district court judge David Dufton immediately came under fire from pro-Beijing loyalists and became a subject of mockery and verbal abuse on the internet by so-called “blue ribbon” supporters.
Among them, director Clifton Ko referred to Dufton as a “dog judge” on social media and accused him of taking sides with local subversives. Some netizens even told Dufton to “go to hell”.
When asked by reporters whether the escalating verbal abuse on the internet against judge Dufton may constitute contempt of court, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice (DOJ) said the department is highly concerned about the incident and will look into it thoroughly.
This is not the first time the public is split over a court ruling. Heated exchanges among netizens with opposing views on the internet in the wake of controversial court rulings happen all the time.
However, when the online rhetoric escalates into personal attacks or verbal abuse against any particular judge involved in the case, they have to be taken seriously by the DOJ and law enforcement, because under our laws, such acts may constitute contempt of court. Those who commit these acts could face criminal charges.
Contempt of court could undermine our judicial independence. We strongly urge the DOJ to act accordingly and follow up on the case in order to protect and preserve the rule of law.
Coincidentally, while our judges have become the victims of verbal abuse because of the decisions they made, recently some of their counterparts in the US and the UK have also found themselves under attack for their own decisions.
For example, shortly after President Donald Trump had signed an executive order barring citizens from seven predominantly Islamic countries from entering the US, federal judge James Robart of the State of Washington ruled that Trump’s decision was unconstitutional, and granted a temporary restraining order against his measures.
Outraged by the court ruling, Trump lashed out at judge Robart on Twitter and called his restraining order “ridiculous”. In his tweet, he also demeaned Robart as the “so-called judge”, and said “if something bad happens, blame him and the court system”.
Trump’s tweet immediately sparked a firestorm of controversy and raised a lot of eyebrows across the political spectrum in Washington. Many believe it is inappropriate for the president to publicly criticize court decisions because it may undermine judicial independence.
Even Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump has nominated to be a new Supreme Court justice, told Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal in private that he was frustrated with the president’s unpleasant remarks against judge Robart.
In the meantime, across the Atlantic, the British Supreme Court has ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May must seek approval from parliament before she can invoke article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon in order to withdraw from the European Union, a decision that could cause delays in Brexit.
The court decision immediately came under fire from certain populist tabloids. Among them, the Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story about the court ruling that called the three judges who made that decision “enemies of the people”.
Shortly afterwards, Lord Neuberger, president of the British Supreme Court, said during an interview with the BBC that political leaders should always rally to the defense of judges whenever they come under malicious attacks from the media, or else it could undermine the rule of law.
Back in Hong Kong, we firmly believe that public respect for our court decisions is the cornerstone of our judicial independence and rule of law.
Therefore, the only appropriate and socially acceptable way for people to express their disapproval of court rulings is to file an appeal with the higher court through standard judicial procedure.
Any verbal abuse, personal attacks, or even threats against any particular judge because of the decisions they made should be denounced and subject to criminal investigation.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 17
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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