Sean Hayes: First expat in Korea’s constitutional court

Article Appeared in the Korea Times in 2003

First expat in Korea’s constitutional court

In a homogenous society like Korea, one may suspect the Constitutional Court, one of the nation’s highest constitutional bodies representative of the people, to be homogeneous as well. But when all the members of this exclusive organization gather together, a discrepancy is hard to miss.

Meet Sean Hayes. He is the first and only foreigner ever hired by the Court. He is also its youngest member.

Sean Hayes is The Korea Herald`s new face in legal advice starting next week in a column called “Legal-Ease.”

Ten months ago, he assumed the role of a Constitutional Research Officer (CRO), a position appointed by the president of the Constitutional Court. CROs bear the important responsibility of conducting investigations and research concerning the adjudication of cases under the direction of the Constitutional Court president.

“I am not only honored to have been employed by the president of this Court, but I feel a strong obligation to [him], to the Korean legal system, and to the citizens of Korea,” he said.

As an American, Hayes specializes on researching Korean law in comparison with American law. And as the first foreign CRO, the 30-year-old says he is expected to bring a more diverse background to the Court. For instance, in addition to his regular duties, he teaches constitutional law and helps his colleagues to research and understand American constitutional law.

In Korea, CROs are licensed attorneys, judges, prosecutors or former tenured university professors.

Qualifications for a CRO are prescribed by the Constitutional Court Act, which states that there is also a preference for the Court to hire CROs from other state agencies, such as judges and prosecutors.

Although Hayes is a foreigner with a foreign law license, he works under the same conditions as his Korean colleagues. For instance, Hayes will keep his post until the Court’s president dismisses him. But foreign CROs dispathed by state agencies stay for a fixed period of two years.

Hayes may not have lived in Korea for that long, but he considers it his home. Having a career in constitutional law here, an area he has had an interest in since his schooldays, has helped him feel even more at home. He says he hopes to help the foreign community in Korea feel at home too.

“I feel very privileged to work for the Court. [It] is playing an active part in insuring the fundamental rights of Koreans and foreigners alike,” he said.

Hayes’ affinity for the Constitutional Court of Korea can be traced back to his sojourn to Korea in 1997.

He said it was by “fluke” that he discovered Korea, just when he was growing weary of his job as a stockbroker in the United States. One day, he happened to come across a brochure promoting various opportunities abroad, one of which was to teach English at Chungnam University in Daejon, he explained. For one year, he did just that, before leaving for law school in 1998. The job proved to be a great way to travel, prepare for law school and work, he said.

As he pursued a J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, he maintained ties with Korea as he nurtured a background in Korean law. During his first year of law school, he spent the summer studying Korean law at Kookmin University. He also interned at the Constitutional Court of Korea for two summers while in law school.

Such an opportunity inspired Hayes to seek a position at Korea’s Constitutional Court upon completing his degree in 2002, he said. He sees it as a way of fostering a stable society, while strengthening the Court’s contribution to the constitutional adjudication of the world.

“Many foreign Courts are looking to the opinions of the [Korean Constitutional Court] for guidance,” he noted. This weekend, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors from over 25 different countries will visit Korea to learn about the successes of its Court. He said he and another research officer are giving a speech at the convention.

Since the Court’s foundation in 1988, it has ruled almost 400 laws unconstitutional, whereas before 1988, only a handful of laws were deemed unconstitutional. Hayes said this reflects the active role the Court has played in Korea.

He emphasized that its active role in society has significantly contributed to the protection of such fundamental rights as freedom of speech, equal protection, the right to property, the right to due process and the right to work.

“I am very proud to work for an institution that is positively affecting the lives of Koreans and foreigners,” he said.

His helping hand will further reach out to the expatriate community through his weekly column in the Weekender section of The Korea Herald. Titled “Legal-Ease,” the column offers legal advice to expats on various issues concerning immigration, driver’s licenses, work visas, buying homes, auto insurance and worker’s rights, among others.

“It’s hard [for foreigners] to get access to information here. The column will cover questions most of them can’t find answers to,” Hayes noted. “Through this job here, I will be helpful to expats.”

By Yoo Soh-jung Staff reporter (



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