Saturday, November 19, 2011

Constitutionality of the Lay Judge System in Japan

"The Grand Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the lay judge system in a ruling on a criminal trial where the system was disputed. The 15 justices voted unanimously on the system's constitutionality.

"This is the first Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the lay judge system since it was introduced in May 2009.

"The ruling was not unexpected given that the top court has strongly supported the system. The decision can be said to indicate a milestone for the system to take firm root in society.

"The defendant in the criminal trial, in which lay judges took part, was a Philippine woman accused of smuggling stimulant drugs into Japan. She was sentenced to an unsuspended prison term at Chiba District Court.

"In an appeal to the high court, the woman's defense lawyers argued that the participation of lay judges was unconstitutional as they were not professional judges and that the woman was not guilty. After the high court rejected her appeal, the woman appealed to the top court.

"No constitutional provision

"The woman's defense lawyers based their argument that the lay judge system was unconstitutional principally on a provision in the Constitution that states, "The judges of the inferior courts shall be appointed by the Cabinet from a list of persons nominated by the Supreme Court."

"They said the lay judge system, under which such judges are chosen from a list of eligible voters by drawing lots, runs counter to this provision.

"The Supreme Court pointed out the Constitution had no provision that a district court trial should be conducted only with professional judges.

"In its opinion, the court said, "When the Constitution was enacted, it was interpreted within the government that the court could also adopt the jury system or the joint judge-jury system." It therefore concluded that the Constitution does not prohibit the participation of citizens in a trial.

"It also is noteworthy that the top court handed down its judgment on other points that the woman's defense claimed were unconstitutional.

"With regard to the assertion the lay judge system infringed on the independence of professional judges, the Supreme Court said the system was set up to ensure a fair trial, with the professional judges being the fundamental pillar of that trial.

"'Servitude' claim rejected

"The defendant also argued that citizens serving as lay judges could constitute involuntary "servitude," which the Constitution prohibits. The top court said the lay judge system was flexible, as people could refuse to serve in this capacity.

"However, experts have pointed out that when the system was being worked out, various constitutional problems arose. The system was launched even though these problems were not thrashed out in debates.

"From the latest ruling, we can perceive the Supreme Court wants to settle the constitutionality of the lay judge system once and for all.

"Since the lay judge system was introduced 2-1/2 years ago, lay judges have carried out their obligations faithfully. It can be said the system has operated more or less steadily.

"Although the lay judge system has been ruled constitutional in the eyes of the law, it is still necessary for courts to give more consideration to reducing the burden on lay judges so that the system can take root even more firmly in society."

By Yomiuri Shimbun (Editorial 11/17/2011), Link to article (last visited 11/19/2011)

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