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Supreme Court says December election ‘in state of unconstitutionality,’ but won’t nullify results

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Last December’s Lower House election that thrust Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition into a landslide victory was borderline unconstitutional, the Supreme Court declared Wednesday, due to the high level of vote-value disparities among constituencies.

The court, however, stopped shy of nullifying its result as was demanded by plaintiffs.

The ruling marked the third consecutive time the top court has deemed the outcome of a Lower House election as being “in a state of unconstitutionality” — a nuanced term that falls a step short of downright unconstitutionality — due to discrepancies in vote value that critics say trivializes voices of people living in heavily populated prefectures such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kanagawa.

The 2014 election took place in a situation that “ran counter to the principle of equality in vote value declared by the Constitution,” presiding Judge Itsuro Terada said.

However, Terada said the top court would acknowledge efforts made by the state to redress the disparities in response to its 2011 ruling that, for the first time in nearly two decades, found a preceding Lower House election borderline unconstitutional.

The state took steps to rectify the inequality “within a reasonable period of time frame” after the 2011 ruling, Terada said. Still, he noted, the Diet must map out and compile concrete plans to further narrow down the disparities “as soon as possible.”

The ruling was handed down in a combined response to 17 lower court lawsuits filed by lawyers nationwide earlier this year.

The plaintiffs argued that the 2014 election, dogged by disparities as high as 2.13, should be invalidated because the gap marred people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to equality. Of the 17, 12 regional courts declared the election constitutional, four borderline unconstitutional and one unconstitutional.

The government, for its part, has maintained the election was constitutional, citing a quick-fix measure it took to assuage gaps ahead of the election.

In accordance with an amendment passed by the Diet in 2012, the government trimmed the number of single-seat constituencies in sparsely populated prefectures such as Tokushima, Fukui and Yamanashi prefectures prior to the election, a move that it estimated would reduce the disparity rate to less than 2.0.

During a news conference Wednesday evening, the lawyers expressed disappointment over what they called the Supreme Court’s “mediocre” ruling, which they said showed its lack of seriousness in addressing the issue.

“It seems the top court is just waiting for the Diet to fix the problem on its own initiative,” lead plaintiff Kuniaki Yamaguchi said.

The Supreme Court’s failure to find the Lower House election unconstitutional is tantamount to its “condoning the irresponsibility of the Diet” in rectifying root-and-branch the vote weight disparities, he said.

With the nation’s 18- and 19-year-olds slated to vote in next summer’s Upper House election for the first time, Wednesday’s ruling may reinforce the misguided notion among youths in urban areas that their votes do not count anyway and further erode turnout, Yamaguchi warned.