Supreme Court seeks immediate improvement of system

It is problematic that Japanese nationals living overseas are not currently allowed to participate in the national review of Supreme Court justices. The government and the Diet need to make immediate efforts to improve the review system.

Following district and high court rulings, the Grand Bench of the Supreme Court found the current national review system to be unconstitutional in a trial in which five plaintiffs, including a Japanese national living abroad, had sought damages from the government. The plaintiffs claimed that the inability of Japanese nationals living overseas to cast a vote in the national review violates the Constitution.

In its ruling, the top court ordered the government to pay each plaintiff ¥5,000.

Under the system, voters judge whether top court justices appointed by the Cabinet are qualified for the job. The national review is implemented in tandem with House of Representatives elections. Voters mark an “X” above the names of justices they believe should be dismissed. Any justice receiving a majority of X-marked ballots faces dismissal.

The Supreme Court ruling said, “The Constitution guarantees the public an equal opportunity for the national review, and no restrictions are allowed in principle.” The ruling appears to take seriously the significance of a system in which the public implements checks on those who are “guardians of the Constitution.”

The 1998 revision of the Public Offices Election Law allowed Japanese nationals living overseas to cast their ballots in the proportional representation sections of national elections for both chambers of the Diet. They later became able to vote in constituency races in national elections as well. However, as there is still no provision in the law for Japanese nationals living abroad regarding the national review system, they remain excluded from that.

Based on these circumstances, the ruling also acknowledged the Diet’s inaction in neglecting legislation that would allow Japanese nationals living abroad to vote in the review.

There are already about 100,000 registered overseas voters for national elections. This number is likely to increase in the future due to the globalization of corporate activities. The next national review will be held in conjunction with the next lower house election. It is essential to reform the system by then.

At the trial, the government argued that it would take time to send overseas ballot papers bearing justices’ names and collect them, making it difficult to implement such voting.

However, one of the top court justices said in a complementary opinion to the ruling that there could be other ways to vote than marking an X above the names of justices. For example, voters could write on a ballot the name of a justice whom they believe should be dismissed. The government should devise methods to that end.

It has been said that the public has little interest in the national review of top court justices, and that the evaluation has become a mere formality. Justices have essentially just one opportunity to be reviewed by the public while in office. Most voters probably do not know their faces, names or how they have performed in their job.

Discussions should also be held about how to publicize information on justices to voters and foster momentum for the national review.

Information and communication technology is rapidly advancing. The government and the Diet should consider introducing electronic procedures to reduce the burden on Japanese nationals living overseas and improve the convenience of the system.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 26, 2022)