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 ruled that denying voters living overseas the right to review the performances of Supreme Court justices violated the Constitution.

The court condemned the Diet for failing for many years to correct the situation and awarded compensation to plaintiffs.

The ruling invoked Article 15 of the Constitution, which guarantees the people the inalienable right to “choose their public officials and to dismiss them,” and also Article 79, which stipulates that the appointments of Supreme Court justices shall be periodically reviewed by the public at the same time as Lower House elections.

The Supreme Court is empowered to make the final decision on the constitutionality of laws enacted by the Diet as well as administrative decisions, and declare those it deems unconstitutional to be as such.

The system of national electoral reviews of Supreme Court justices is designed to enable the public to monitor the performances of the justices, thereby keeping them in check.

The district court, in a decision with significant implications, said access to the system was an “inalienable right” for the people and “restricting the exercise of the right must not be allowed in principle.”

In a related ruling in 2005, the Supreme Court proclaimed the Public Offices Election Law to be unconstitutional because it allowed overseas voters to cast ballots only in the proportional representation constituency for national elections.

While the Diet subsequently passed legislation to allow voters overseas to also cast ballots in the single-seat constituencies of the Lower House elections as well as in the prefectural constituencies of the Upper House elections, no action was taken to let them review whether Supreme Court justices were fit to serve.

The Diet’s inaction triggered a series of lawsuits similar to the latest one, and in 2011 the Tokyo District Court said the lack of legislative action taken to allow overseas voters to review Supreme Court justices during the 2009 election possibly violated the Constitution although it did not grant compensation to the plaintiffs.

But neither the government nor the Diet responded to the warning from the district court. In the latest case, the government again argued that 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 overseas would cast ballots.

The district court rejected this argument by pointing to advances in communications technology, effectively serving an indictment of the government's and the Diet's dereliction of duty.

We urge the executive and legislative branches to focus on figuring out how to rectify the situation instead of enumerating reasons for not being able to do anything.

As it happens, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is preparing for a trial of overseas voting using the Internet. Applying the system to Supreme Court justice reviews would by no means be a tall order.

Some experts point out that low public interest in the review system is a major factor behind the foot-dragging by the Diet and the government.

To be sure, the Supreme Court is not an institution familiar to many people. There is hardly high public interest in the reviews.

The Supreme Court’s website provides information about its justices and the cases they heard. Official bulletins offering such information are distributed among households before the reviews.

But descriptions about rulings and decisions in these documents are presented in arcane language, which indicates that the Supreme Court is not serious about making the information accessible to the public.

There seems to be a lot of room for improvement in both the content of the information and the way it is offered to the public.

Voters can decide whether a specific Supreme Court justice is suitable for the job from the viewpoints of their own lives and values only when enough relevant information is made available.

For example, lawyers dealing with the issue of vote-value disparities are calling on the people to take the positions of Supreme Court justices on this issue in reviewing their performances.

The foundation of the judiciary becomes stronger when it wins the confidence of the people. Solid public confidence allows the judiciary to serve its role properly as one of the three branches of the government under the checks and balances system.

This argument also applies to the citizen judge system. The district court ruling should lead to in-depth public debate on the significance of the review system and challenges it is facing.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 4