Bad apple or rotten core? (Indonesia)

In the wake of last week’s mob attack on the Indonesian Constitutional Court (MK), some politicians are taking the opportunity to remind the court about its legitimacy problems. According to Viva News, DPR representative Eva Sundari (PDI-P) has called on all eight justices to resign:

New justices should be elected: Those who do not share the sin of Akil Mochtar for endorsing his unaccountable rulings. (translation from The Jakarta Post)

Such calls raise an important question: was Akil Mochtar simply a bad apple or a sign of deeper problems with the MK as an institution? Is there a need to start anew with a clean slate?

First, some context. Corruption happens. It’s impossible to prevent all public officials from engaging in corruption all the time. Just last year, in the neighboring Philippines, Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached and convicted on a variety of corruption allegations. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has not been immune to corruption. In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas resigned amid allegations that he accepted a large sum of money from a financier who was under government investigation. 
More importantly, there were plenty of signs even before October 2013 that Akil Mochtar’s appointment might embroil the MK in ethical problems. Back in 2006, Indonesian Corruption Watch alleged that Akil had taken money while serving on a government commission for redistricting. Several NGOs openly opposed his appointment to the MK in 2008 pointing to past allegations of corruption. In 2010, elections lawyer Refly Harun famously accused Akil Mochtar of having received money from a candidate in a North Sumatra regency election (an internal investigation held that there was insufficient evidence to discipline Akil). 
None of this is to say that the MK can afford to be complacent. There is a very active and productive debate currently ongoing in Indonesia about enforcing ethics in the MK. However, that debate is largely taking place amongst lawyers, NGOs, politicians, and the rest of the Jakarta elite. To many Indonesians, there is a real risk that the Akil Mochtar scandal is their first and most enduring impression of the court. They have no reason to believe that Akil’s corruption did not taint the rest of the court. The MK does need to find a way to rebuild its credibility. If the MK attempts a “business as usual” approach, it might well face increased calls for wholesale reform.

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