Photo/IllutrationDocumentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda appears on a computer screen at a May 28 news conference in Tokyo after the Tokyo District Court ruled that overseas voters' rights were being violated. (Takuya Kitazawa)

The Tokyo District Court on May 28 criticized the Diet for negligence and ruled that denying overseas voters the right to review the performances of Supreme Court justices violated the Constitution.

Five plaintiffs living abroad filed the lawsuit seeking 10,000 yen ($90) each in compensation from the government.

The court awarded each plaintiff 5,000 yen, ruling that the Diet’s negligence contributed to the violation of Article 15 of the Constitution, which guarantees the people the inalienable right to “choose their public officials and to dismiss them.”

The Supreme Court in 2005 ruled in favor of plaintiffs seeking compensation because their rights were being violated by legal provisions that only allowed overseas voters to cast ballots in the proportional representation constituency for national elections.

The Diet subsequently passed legislation that allowed voters abroad to also cast ballots in the single-seat and prefectural constituencies of the Lower House and Upper House elections, respectively.

However, no action was taken to let them review whether Supreme Court justices were fit to serve.

Under Article 79 of the Constitution, newly appointed justices come under review at the same time as the first Lower House election held after their appointment and again during the Lower House election after 10 years have passed.

The government argued it did not have enough time to print the ballots with the names of the Supreme Court justices under review and send them to overseas embassies and consulates where Japanese abroad would vote.

The plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit included Kazuhiro Soda, a documentary filmmaker who resides in New York. They claimed their rights were violated because they could not review Supreme Court justices during the 2017 Lower House election.

The district court ruling recognized that reviewing justices was an important right under the Constitution to ensure democratic control over the judiciary.

Lawyers for the government argued that reviewing justices was different in nature than voting for lawmakers. However, the district court ruled that restrictions on reviewing Supreme Court justices were “in principle, not allowed.”

The court also ruled that advances in communications made it possible to find other methods to allow overseas voters to review the justices. It ruled that the Diet had no adequate reason for failing to use such a system for the 2017 election and review.

The district court also touched upon a separate lawsuit on which it ruled in 2011. Its earlier ruling said the lack of legislative action taken to allow overseas voters to review Supreme Court justices during the 2009 election possibly violated the Constitution.

The district court on May 28 said the Diet had to be faulted for neglecting to take action since the 2011 ruling.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated at his news conference the same day that relevant government ministries would discuss whether to appeal the ruling.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs described the verdict as “epoch-making.”

“I am glad that I raised my voice about something I felt was wrong,” said Motoki Taniguchi, 40, a lawyer who was also a plaintiff because he lived in the United States during the 2017 election. “I hope the Diet will take immediate action.”

Another lawyer, Kyoko Yoshida, blasted the Diet for ignoring the 2011 district court ruling, saying lawmakers had sufficient time to come up with a new system to allow overseas voters to review the justices in 2017.

Soda joined the news conference held by the lawyers in Tokyo over the Internet.

He touched upon the fierce political struggles that occur in the United States when appointing Supreme Court justices there.

“Legal interpretations can change depending on the justice so there is an effect on our lives,” he said. “I hope this will serve as an opportunity to bring attention to the importance of the review system for the Japanese.”

In the review, voters write an “X” for justices they feel should be dismissed. Any justice who receives more than a majority of X marks will be dismissed. So far, that has never happened.

While seven justices were under review during the 2017 election, the percentage of voters who said those justices should be dismissed was about 8 percent.

(Eri Niiya contributed to this article.)