A provision of the Public Offices Election Law that keeps Japanese citizens living abroad from voting for individual candidates in Diet elections is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Under the law revised in 1998, eligible voters living overseas are allowed to vote under the proportional representation segment of national elections but cannot cast ballots for specific candidates in single-seat districts.
Before the revision, they were not allowed to vote at all in Diet elections.
Deeming the election law unconstitutional in both its original and revised forms, the ruling by the Grand Bench of the top court guarantees voters abroad the right to vote in districts elections starting with the next one.
The court ordered the government to pay 5,000 yen in compensation to each plaintiff, saying it is liable for damages if the Diet doesn’t enact laws in a timely manner essential for citizens to exercise their rights. The decision was reached by a majority of 12 of the 14 top court justices involved in the case.
“It is unconstitutional to impose restrictions on voting rights without reasonable cause,” said the grand bench, led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Akira Machida.
The case marks the seventh time the Supreme Court has deemed a law unconstitutional.
The top court also guaranteed voters living the right to vote in district elections, beginning with the next national election.
Responding to the ruling, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the government must revise the election law by summer 2007 at the latest, when the next House of Councilors election is to be held.
“The government takes the court’s judgment seriously,” Hosoda said. “We need to reflect it in legislation.”
The plaintiffs and their lawyers welcomed the ruling.
“The Supreme Court hands down decisions that can influence or determine the future of the country,” said Tatsuhiko Wakao, 64, who has resided in Los Angeles for more than 24 years.
“And today, I was a witness” to a ruling that will have such an influence, he said. “I am now deeply impressed with Japan’s legal system.”
Kazuyoshi Kitaoka, 63, expressed joy over the decision, saying, “We believe that because of this ruling, democracy in Japan has taken a big step forward.
“We are Japanese and we will be Japanese till the day we die, praying for the development of our mother country,” the L.A. resident of over 25 years said. “True, it may just be one vote, but our passionate feelings (toward Japan) drives us to want to cast that single vote.”
The plaintiffs stressed, however, that the battle will not be over until the government revises the Public Offices Election Law in line with the ruling.
“We also would like (the government) to improve the present electoral system, which is extremely complicated, so that everyone can vote easily,” Kitaoka added.
The lawsuit was initially filed with the Tokyo District Court by 53 qualified voters living in eight countries because they could not vote in the House of Representatives election in October 1996.
They claimed the election law, which restricted their voting rights, is unconstitutional, and sought 50,000 yen in compensation each.
Both the district court and the Tokyo High Court rejected their argument, without ruling on the constitutionality of the law.
The courts said the Diet must judge the requirements for the overseas voting system.
Following the rejections, 13 of the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court.
It is estimated there are more than 720,000 eligible voters living abroad, more than three times the number in the Tokushima No. 1 single-seat district.
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