In Forced Sterilization Case, ‘Cold’ Precedent Rejected; Supreme Court Crafts Exception to Statute of Limitations

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Plaintiffs in forced sterilization lawsuits hold banners reading “victory ruling” after the Supreme Court ruling in Tokyo on Wednesday.

The defunct Eugenic Protection Law, which subjected disabled people and others to forced sterilization, was declared “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, paving the way for victims to receive full legal relief.

The court granted the plaintiffs’ claims for damages against the government, taking seriously the consequences of the enormous violations of human rights.

For the first time in 35 years, the court changed its precedent regarding the statute of limitations, a legal principle that the right to seek compensation expires 20 years after the date of the illegal act. The court’s decision, which brought fresh air to the longstanding precedent, is expected to affect other lawsuits of this kind.

‘Greatest decision’

“The courageous voices of the victims moved the Supreme Court,” Koji Niisato, the coleader of a group of lawyers for the lawsuits, told reporters at the House of Representatives members’ building in Nagatacho, Tokyo.

He praised the decision of the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench at a press conference held on Wednesday, saying, “This is the greatest decision we could have hoped for.”

The now-defunct law, which was in effect from 1948 until its repeal in 1996, allowed for the forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities and hereditary conditions such as visual and hearing impairments.

The lawsuit raised the issues of whether the old law violated the Constitution and whether the 20-year statute of limitations should be applied to the cases.

In the litigation, the government did not take a position on whether the old law was unconstitutional.

Yet the ruling clearly stated that the law violated Article 13 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to liberty, including the right to not be subjected to physically invasive procedures against one’s will. It also stated that the law violated Article 14, which establishes the right to equality.

Of the about 25,000 people who underwent the surgery, some had consented to it, but the court ruled that “it is contrary to the spirit of respect for personal dignity and individuality to demand consent for an operation that is intended to be a great sacrifice for a particular individual.”

This is the 13th case since the end of World War II in which the Supreme Court has ruled a law unconstitutional, but the first time it has explicitly stated that a law violated the Constitution from the time it was created.

Cold approach

The key issue in the ruling was the Supreme Court’s decision on the statute of limitations, which has stood in the way of the plaintiffs as a “time barrier” because their rights expire uniformly after 20 years.

The 20-year statute of limitations was established by a 1989 Supreme Court decision.

“Regardless of what circumstances the parties to a suit may have complained about, the court should find that the right of action has been extinguished by the passage of time,” the 1989 ruling said.

“[For many years, the legal community] had viewed the ruling as a cold approach that took no account of the victim’s circumstances,” a veteran judge said.

The Grand Bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday took the initiative to change this precedent. This comes from the heavy responsibility of the government, which for almost half a century had discriminated against people with disabilities under the old law and had implemented measures that required great sacrifices in the form of forced surgeries.

The ruling stated that maintaining the precedent would “lead to the unacceptable result that the government would be exempted from liability for damages.”

The court established a new framework for judgments, stating that “in cases where the application of the law is extremely contrary to the principles of justice and fairness, damages may be claimed even after the statute of limitations has expired.”

With this decision, there is an infinitely greater chance that victims who have not yet filed a lawsuit will be able to obtain judicial redress.