HIROSHIMA – A Japanese court has found an election law provision denying prisoners the right to vote in a national poll is constitutional, in the latest ruling in a series of lawsuits filed over the controversial issue.
The Hiroshima District Court on Wednesday rejected a claim by a prison inmate in his 50s who sought the right to vote on the grounds the election law contravenes the Constitution, which guarantees the “inalienable right” to choose public officials.
“We cannot say it is against the Constitution,” presiding Judge Masayuki Suenaga said in the ruling, adding there is a “certain degree of reasonableness” in the restrictions set by Article 11 of the Public Offices Election Law, which says imprisoned individuals cannot vote.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff from Okayama Prefecture began serving his term in 2007 in a prison in Hiroshima. After being denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 Lower House election, he filed the lawsuit in September 2015, seeking that the right to vote be recognized by the next national election and ¥1.2 million in compensation.
But the district court said it is reasonable to limit the voting rights of inmates as a “sanction that comes along with a criminal sentence,” which is served in a facility “segregated from society.”
The plaintiff’s lawyers said later in the day that they will consider whether to appeal against the ruling, arguing that excluding inmates from elections by thinking that they cannot exercise their voting right properly “is out of date.”
“I cannot understand why only inmates are being left behind,” Takehiko Harada, one of the lawyers, said in a news conference, noting that the ruling contradicts the recent move in the country to extend voting eligibility by lowering the voting age to 18 from 20.
In similar lawsuits, courts have been divided over how to view the restrictions in light of the Constitution. The election law denies a person sentenced to imprisonment the right to vote or be elected until the sentence is served.
The Osaka High Court ruled in another case in 2013 that “restricting the right to vote in a uniform way is unconstitutional,” while dismissing the damages claim of a former inmate. The state was unable to appeal the ruling because the plaintiff lost, and the ruling was later finalized.
The Tokyo High Court said in a different lawsuit the same year that the election law does not contravene the Constitution.
The issue has been contested in court since around 2010, but the Supreme Court has not ruled on the constitutionality of the provision so far.
Some other restrictions on voting, however, have been removed after court rulings acknowledged that they are unconstitutional, including those imposed on Japanese citizens living overseas.
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