The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Although the Supreme Court is vested with the power of judicial review, it is not authorized to judge the constitutionality of a particular law separately from a specific, individual case: it is allowed to make a judgment only on a specific dispute as the court of appellate instance. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide on final appeals and on appeals against rulings brought under procedural laws.
The Supreme Court accepts a final appeal in the following cases:
Firstly, an appeal may be lodged against a judgment rendered by a high court as the first instance or the second instance in civil cases, administrative cases and criminal cases. Secondly, a direct appeal may be allowed from the judgment rendered in the first instance by a district court or a family court, or against a judgment in the first instance that a summary court has rendered in a criminal case. Thirdly, if there is a special reason, an appeal filed with a high court may be transferred to the Supreme Court. Fourthly, a special appeal may be allowed to the Supreme Court against a judgment rendered by the high court acting as the court of final appeal in a civil case, if the judgment involves an erroneous interpretation of the Constitution or any other violation of the Constitution. Lastly, an extraordinary appeal may be made by the Prosecutor-General against a final and binding judgment in a criminal case.
An appeal against a ruling to the Supreme Court is permissible in civil, administrative and family cases, if the petition challenges the constitutionality of the ruling or if a high court permits the petition on finding the case to involve an important issue concerning the interpretation of laws and regulations. Also, in a criminal case, a special appeal may be filed with the Supreme Court against an order by a court or a direction by a judge in which no appeal is normally permitted, if the grounds for appeal are the involvement of a constitutional violation or a material conflict with judicial precedent.
The grounds for final appeal to the Supreme Court can be summarized as follows: acceptable grounds for final appeal in civil and administrative cases are violation of the Constitution and serious breach of procedural laws and regulations by lower courts, of which the latter type of grounds for final appeal is specified in the Code of Civil Procedure. Besides, upon petition, the Supreme Court may hear a case that it finds to involve a material issue concerning the interpretation of laws and regulations. An appeal is permitted in a criminal case on grounds of (i) a constitutional violation, (ii) a misconstruction in constitutional interpretation, or (iii) a conflict with Supreme Court precedent, or with high court precedent, in its absence. However, as with civil and administrative cases, upon petition, the Supreme Court may hear an appeal that it finds to involve an important issue concerning the interpretation of laws and regulations.
The Supreme Court is composed of a Chief Justice and fourteen other Justices. It is divided into three Petty Benches, and most appeal cases are adjudicated by one of these. Three Justices constitute a quorum for handling a case. If an appeal involves material issues of constitutional interpretation, the Grand Bench, composed of the Chief Justice and all fourteen other Justices, adjudicates the matter. Nine Justices constitute a quorum for the Grand Bench to handle a case.
High courts are located in eight major cities in Japan: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sendai, Sapporo, and Takamatsu. Branches─six in all─are attached to some of the high courts. In addition, in April 2005, the Intellectual Property High Court was established as a special branch of the Tokyo High Court. Each high court is composed of one president and several judges.
In general, the high courts have jurisdiction over appeals against rulings by the district courts, family courts, and summary courts. They also hear appeals against lower-court rulings, unless the codes of procedure specifically provide for Supreme Court jurisdiction. Incidentally, the procedures of appeals against judgments rendered by summary courts in the first instance differ between civil cases and criminal cases; in criminal cases, the appellant may appeal against the summary court judgment directly to the high court, whereas in civil cases, an appeal against a summary court judgment is first filed with the district court, and later passes to the high court.
The high court also has special jurisdiction in several matters. It has original jurisdiction as the court of first instance in administrative cases related to elections, criminal cases related to insurrections, and actions to revoke decisions of quasi-judicial agencies such as the Japan Marine Accident Tribunal. In addition, the Intellectual Property High Court has exclusive jurisdiction over appeals against district court judgments on actions relating to patents, etc. (so-called technology-related actions relating to patents, utility model rights, layout-design exploitation rights for semiconductor integrated circuits, or the rights of authors for a computer program work) and suits against appeal/trial decisions made by the Japan Patent Office.
In principle, cases in a high court are handled by a three-judge panel. In cases related to insurrections or to disciplinary and other action against judges, a panel of five judges presides over the trial. Actions against appeal/trial decisions by the Japan Patent Office may be tried by a panel of five judges.
District courts are located in 50 cities─one in every prefecture except for Hokkaido, which is divided into four districts─and there are 203 branches throughout the country. District courts are normally the courts of first instance for civil, administrative and criminal cases, except for matters specifically coming under the exclusive original jurisdiction of other types of court. District courts also have jurisdiction over appeals against summary court judgments and rulings in civil cases. Usually a single judge presides over the trial in a district court, but in the following cases, a three-judge panel is required: (i) if a panel has directed that a three-judge panel should sit, (ii) when trying a crime punishable by the death penalty or imprisonment with or without work the minimum term of which is one year or longer, including life imprisonment, with some exceptions (robbery, etc.), (iii) for appeals against judgments rendered by summary courts or appeals against rulings filed against summary court rulings and orders, and (iv) other cases that must be heard by a panel pursuant to the provisions set forth by law. All district courts and some of their branches hold criminal trials with the participation of Saiban-in (lay judges) in certain serious cases. Under this system, a panel consisting of six Saiban-ins and three professional judges handle such cases.