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Judge facing discipline for tweeting about case cites 'freedom of expression'

TOKYO -- A Tokyo High Court judge facing a disciplinary measure after tweeting about a civil suit outside his purview told a Supreme Court hearing on Sept. 11 that the high court's move to punish him violates the Constitution for infringing upon his "freedom of expression," the judge has revealed to the media.

The judge, Kiichi Okaguchi, 52, met reporters after a closed hearing on his case at the top court's Grand Bench on Sept. 11. He is accused of posting an inappropriate tweet in May about a civil suit over dog ownership that was discussed in an article on the internet.

"The high court's filing for disciplinary action against me runs counter to the Constitution or other laws and infringes on my freedom of expression," Okaguchi quoted himself as telling the court hearing earlier in the day during the press conference. It is unusual for a sitting court judge to ever hold a press conference.

Under the Judges Status Act, a court must hear a judge explain themself before deciding whether to take disciplinary action against them. Based on Okaguchi's assertion, the top court's Grand Bench will determine whether to punish him in late September or later.

In his tweet in question, Okaguchi reacted to an article about a civil case over the ownership of a pet dog that was abandoned in a park, apparently criticizing the original owner for claiming the dog after it was adopted by a new owner. "What? Didn't you abandon this dog? How can you make such a claim after leaving the dog unattended for as many as three months?" Okaguchi tweeted.

The high court determined in July that the judge's tweet "hurt the feelings of the original owner of the dog" after receiving a protest from them.

Because the judge has a history of controversial tweets, for which he had received strict warnings twice already, the high court went ahead and filed for disciplinary action against him this time.

In the past, Okaguchi was reprimanded for posting a picture of a half-naked man on Twitter, as well as for posting an inappropriate tweet about an appeal court ruling on a high school girl murder case.

After the roughly 30-minute hearing at the top court bench on Sept. 11, Okaguchi met the press in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district and said, "Normally, a judge would be subject to a disciplinary measure for molestation and other actions, but I only tweeted in an ordinary manner, which doesn't meet the level of requiring discipline."

Koichi Oga, a lawyer representing Okaguchi, said, "If a judge is punished for a tweet in his private life when freedom of expression is guaranteed, it would have a chilling effect and exert a tremendous impact on society in general."

According to the Supreme Court, there have been 64 judges who faced disciplinary measures as of Sept. 11. Of them, 61 actually received such measures. By penalty, eight of them were ordered to pay a fine, 53 received warnings, while the remaining three ended up not being disciplined. Among the cases subject to warnings were molestation, sexual harassment and engagement in political activities.

(Japanese original by Akira Hattori, City News Department)

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