It’s been six months since the official kickoff of Japan’s lay judge system (roughly equivalent to a US jury), and about 4 months since the first trial began. Already, 84 people have helped adjudicate 14 criminal trials.
So far there have been hundreds of thousands more – 290,000 to be precise – who have received notices telling them they may have to serve (presumably this includes both people who were excused and those still in the selection process). Asahi Shimbun has a feature article (in the Nov 17 print edition) on the ups and downs of the selection process. According to a provided flowchart, the process typically goes something like this:
- People are randomly selected from the roster of eligible voters and must fill out a questionnaire about their eligibility, which they can then deliver in person or mail in. Many can get out of showing up for an interview at court for a variety of reasons – those 70 or older, those who have not completed middle school, people with “critical matters” to attend to, and those who have been sentenced to imprisonment are among those who do not have to serve.
- Of the 40 or so who are asked to come to the courthouse, about five stragglers will fail to appear and face a fine.
- Then it’s interview time. The head judge, the prosecutor, and the defense will hold a speak privately with each candidate. The judge will excuse around three people for the above legally permitted reasons mandated by law. The prosecutors and defense can then excuse up to seven people each without giving any reason. The judge can also suggest to either side that they let someone go. The article quotes a defense attorney explaining that he tends to excuse old people and women because they tend to throw the book at violent offenders. Another defender tries to pick mothers with children the same age as the defendant. A prosecutor let a woman go for keeping quiet and looking at the floor all the time. One judge asked a defender to let a woman go who looked too weak to fully participate (the defender agreed).
- After the initial selection process, the remaining candidates are decided by lottery. Six people are selected as lay judges, with two others chosen as backups. Those who are not chosen do not know whether they lose the lottery or if the lawyers in the case wanted them out.
Basically, it sounds like otherwise eligible people can get out of lay judge duty by acting unenthusiastic or fatigued because the lawyers want people who will be engaged and interested.
One complaint voiced a man who was excused: if you show up at the courthouse and are chosen as a lay judge, you’re immediately sequestered for about four days. That forces everyone to plan on being away for a few days even though most will be able to go home. The man suggested scheduling the trial a week after the interview day so the lay judges can make arrangements for an extended time away from home. That’s basically how it works in the US, if I recall correctly.
A woman who cares for her ailing mother full time wrote in her questionnaire that she would like to be excused, but the court called and told her she should come anyway. She had to pay for a home helper out of pocket to show up at court. She ended up not being selected, but since there was no way to plan she ended up having to pay for an extra day of care that she didn’t use.
Sadly this story was relegated to the back pages of the Asahi. This scheduling issue is a careless oversight that threatens to undermine the already shaky public support for this new system. Once chosen, almost everyone seems to feel the process was worth it, according to a survey. The next step is lessening the hassle for those who don’t get chosen.