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Editorial: Personnel management of prosecutors requires clear autonomy from politics

  • May 19, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 12:30 pm
  • English Press

For prosecutors to carry out their duties in pursuit of justice and impartiality as well as neutrality and independence, it is essential to secure a certain degree of their autonomy.

 

The government and the ruling parties have decided to delay the passage of a bill to revise the Public Prosecutors Office Law to extend the retirement age of public prosecutors, which they had intended to pass during the current Diet session.

 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, “We will proceed [with the passage] while gaining the public’s understanding.”

 

They apparently took into account the growing criticism that the proposed revision would threaten the political neutrality of prosecutors.

 

The revision was submitted to the Diet as a part of package of legislation that also includes a bill to extend the retirement age of national civil servants to 65. Extending the prosecutors’ retirement age from 63 to 65 itself is reasonable in order to create an environment in which motivated people can work longer in an aging society with a declining birthrate.

 

The problem is that the revision includes a special provision allowing the retirement age of senior prosecutors, such as the prosecutor general or the superintending prosecutor, to be extended by up to three more years if the Cabinet deems it necessary.

 

The Public Prosecutors Office is an administrative organization, but unlike other ministries and agencies, it has a quasi-judicial role. For example, it holds in principle the exclusive authority to prosecute. At times, prosecutors even set out to conduct political investigations. For this reason, a strong status guarantee similar to that of judges has been granted.

 

Although the Cabinet has the power to appoint the prosecutor general and other senior officials, previous cabinets have respected the will of the Justice Ministry and the Public Prosecutors Office as a whole when it comes to appointing senior officials. It can be said that political influence has been removed and the autonomy of the appointment of prosecutors has been maintained.

 

Depending on how the special provision is implemented, the term of office of senior prosecutors will be determined at the discretion of the Cabinet. This could undermine the proper distance between the administration and the prosecutors.

 

It is apparently because of this sense of urgency that a succession of former prosecutors, including a former prosecutor general, have submitted letters of opinion to the Justice Ministry asking it to reconsider the revision.

 

To maintain the independence of prosecutors, it will be inevitable to review the revision of the bill. The special provision should be deleted.

 

There needs to be a system in place that does not allow the extension of the term of a prosecutor general beyond the age of 65. The system should also include a restriction that the superintending prosecutor and other senior prosecutors can work as prosecutors until they reach the age of 65, but when they reach the age of 63, they have to relinquish such rank without exception in order to revitalize the organization.

 

The upsurge of criticism over the revision of the bill is related to the Abe Cabinet’s decision in January to change the previous interpretation of laws and postpone the retirement age for Hiromu Kurokawa, the superintending prosecutor of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office. This was because the attempt to revise the bill seemed to be an effort to make the postponement of Kurokawa’s retirement age consistent with the law after it had already been decided by the Cabinet.

 

The government’s failure to thoroughly explain the reasons for postponing Kurokawa’s retirement age was another factor that led to the distrust.

 

The fair exercise of prosecutorial authority is supported by public trust. This point should not be forgotten when considering the revision of the bill later.

 

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