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Editorial: No grounds for move to extend retirement age of top prosecutors

  • May 16, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 3:16 p.m.
  • English Press

A government move to extend the legal retirement age of top public prosecutors has prompted many Japanese to question the motive behind the initiative and specific cases it has in mind.

 

Yet the government has offered no serious responses to these legitimate questions, apparently because it has no answer. That being the case, the bill should be retracted immediately.

 

On May 15, Justice Minister Masako Mori finally appeared before a session of the Lower House Cabinet Committee, where the revision to the Public Prosecutors Office Law is under consideration.

 

The primary bone of contention is a provision designed to give the government discretion to delay the mandatory retirement of prosecutors holding the most senior positions, including superintendent public prosecutors, or the heads of high public prosecutors offices.

 

In the May 15 committee session, opposition lawmakers called on the government to clarify the rationale for changing the law, along with criteria for making decisions to take this step. But Mori failed to offer any meaningful responses to these requests.

 

As she only read out prepared answers, Mori fell far short of delivering on her promise to provide a “sincere explanation” about this controversial legislation.

 

The Public Prosecutors Office Law, enacted after the end of World War II, stipulates that the public prosecutor general, or the head of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office, should retire at age 65, while setting the mandatory retirement age for other public prosecutors at 63.

 

The law has no provision to give consideration to factors other than age with regard to when public prosecutors should retire.

 

This is to leave no room for political intervention in the matter that could inhibit prosecutors from performing their functions properly or maintaining their neutrality.

 

This rule had been strictly and consistently observed until the Abe administration at the end of January abruptly postponed the scheduled retirement of Hiromu Kurokawa as head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office.

 

The bill in question is designed to institutionalize the power of the government to make such special decisions and amounts to a fundamental review of the legal code governing the relationship between the executive branch and public prosecutors.

 

The government has a duty to seek support from the Diet for the bill by giving both detailed reasons for this initiative and specific criteria for allowing senior public prosecutors to continue holding office beyond the legal retirement age.

 

But Mori simply reiterated that the criteria will be established “appropriately” in calling for lawmakers’ understanding. She effectively asked for a “carte blanche” that the Diet must not hand to the government.

In addition to the justice minister, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also made questionable remarks about this bill.

 

“There is no denying that prosecutors are also administrative officials,” he said, as if to argue that they should naturally be under the Cabinet’s control.

 

The remark indicates that Abe has no clear understanding of the nature of the role of prosecutors, who are closely involved in the workings of the judicial system and required to investigate and prosecute any violation of the law by politicians as well.

 

There are serious concerns within the judicial community about how the proposed expansion of the government’s influence over personnel affairs involving senior prosecutors could undermine the integrity of the system and damage public trust in the profession.

 

These grave concerns prompted a group of retired top prosecutors led by former Prosecutor-General Kunihiro Matsuo to submit a position paper to the Justice Ministry on May 15 expressing opposition to the revision. This was indeed an unusual move.

 

The ruling coalition’s handling of the bill also deserves rigorous criticism. The Liberal Democratic Party kept Mori from attending Cabinet Committee sessions on the issue due to fears her wavering remarks could stall proceedings. The LDP allowed committee sessions to proceed while opposition parties were boycotting them in protest.

 

The LDP also removed party lawmaker Hirohiko Izumida from the committee after he posted a tweet that stated the proposed revision to the law did not have broad consensus among the people.

 

The Diet is obliged to scrutinize bills from diverse viewpoints of lawmakers and monitor the Cabinet’s behavior as “the highest organ of state power.”

 

The ruling party’s move to toe the government line and punish a dissenting member runs counter to the role of the Diet as a bastion of free speech.

 

The ruling camp cannot be permitted to ram the bill through the committee and the Diet.

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