Top court notifying lay judge candidates


Over the next few days, some 295,000 Japanese can expect to find a large envelope from the Supreme Court in their mailboxes with the following notice: “This is to inform you that, as a result of a lottery, you are listed as a prospective lay judge of the court (between May 21 and Dec. 31, 2009).”

The top court will send out this notice Friday on behalf of local district courts ahead of the May 21 launch of the new criminal court system.

Under the lay judge system, six randomly chosen citizens will join three professional judges in criminal trials and, if they find the accused guilty, hand down a sentence.

The cases subject to be tried by the nine-member bench are serious crimes, including murder, rape, arson and robbery resulting in death or injury. The decision will be reached by a majority vote, but a vote that finds the accused guilty must include at least one vote by a professional judge.

About 2,600 cases that would be subject to a lay judge trial took place in fiscal 2007, according to the Supreme Court. Based on that number, the court estimates that one in 5,000 citizens will likely participate in proceedings either as lay judges or their substitutes at 50 district courts and 10 branches nationwide.

The notice arriving in the mail will inform prospective lay judges that they have been listed in the pool, but do not have to appear in court yet.

The envelope will also include a questionnaire asking whether they belong to any of several fields exempted from duty. These include ministers, high-ranking public servants, legal professionals and members of the Self-Defense Forces.

Those contacted will also have the chance to submit, in detail, a valid reason why they should not have to serve as a lay judge. Valid reasons include being over 70 years old, a student or faced with a hardship due to service. The court will also ask prospective lay judges if there are any specific months of the year that would be difficult for them to serve.

The prospective lay judges are to return the questionnaire by mid-December. At that point, the local district courts will look at the replies and decide who to remove from the pool.

After May 21, citizens listed in the pool will be chosen as lay judge candidates by lottery whenever a case subject to the lay judge court comes up. Candidates will receive another notice from the court to show up at their local district courts to go through the selection process.

The envelope from the court also contains a “manga” cartoon brochure called “The Lay Judge System Q&A” that explains the new system as well as what the role of lay judges will be following selection.

The first lay judge trial under the new system is likely to take place as early as July.