The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that it is constitutional to place restraints on court judges’ freedom of expression.
The top court thus dismissed an immediate challenge filed by an assistant judge of the Sendai District Court who had been admonished for a remark he made during a public rally protesting a law related to organized crime.
“Placing certain limits on freedom of expression for trial judges is permitted within reasonable and necessary bounds,” the top court said after voting in favor of the admonishment.
Chief Justice Shigeru Yamaguchi upheld a Sendai High Court decision saying that Assistant Judge Kazushi Teranishi had actively engaged in a political activity in violation of his professional duties, and therefore deserved admonition.
It was the first time a trial judge’s admonishment for political activity had been finalized, according to informed sources.
The 15-member Grand Bench of the Supreme Court handed down the decision after voting 10 to five in favor. Four of the five justices who opposed the ruling argued that Teranishi’s remark at the rally did not amount to an “active” political activity that would deserve punishment.
In April, Assistant Judge Teranishi addressed a political rally and said that he was unable to make remarks as a panelist because the director of the Sendai District Court had warned him against attending the rally.
In July, the Sendai High Court decided to admonish Teranishi for his behavior.
Wednesday’s top court decision means that all judges and justices who are entitled to examine the constitutionality and lawfulness of matters should not be involved in any political forces so as not to violate their neutrality and fairness.
The highest court defined an “active political activist” as someone “actively engaged in organized and continuous political activity, which may cause damage to the judge’s independence.”
On top of that, the court ruled that putting some restraints on a judge’s freedom of expression is allowable.
The court also said that the maintenance of the public trust in jurisprudence is more important than placing some restraint on a judge’s freedom of expression, and that the benefits obtained from restraints are greater than those lost.
However, the same court said the judges are not prohibited from expressing their views as citizens in meetings that are deemed politically neutral and fair. The rally in question was politically motivated and factional, it pointed out.
What Teranishi did and said was designed to oppose the planned legislation and put pressure on the Diet to prevent its enactment, the court was told.
Justice Shinichi Kawai, who opposed the ruling, said that resorting to the right to use disciplinary action should be refrained from as much as possible if it is meant to temper judges who are courageous and independent.
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