February 5, 2009
ATLANTA-Where Akira Yasumi comes from, the right to trial by jury doesn't exist--yet.
In the courts of Japan, where Yasumi is a district court judge, criminal cases are decided by three professional judges, who also hand down sentences. A new system going into effect in May of this year, called Saiban-in, is a hybrid of the old bench trial system and the American jury trial. Innocence or guilt is decided by six citizen jurors as well as three professional judges who have equal voting power. Verdicts require a simple majority.
As Japan prepares to implement the system, Yasumi, 36, is living in the United States and learning about the American justice system while on a year-long research visa sponsored by Georgia State University's College of Law.
Yasumi, who has been a judge in Japan for four years, is based at the Fulton County Courthouse though he plans to visit and learn about the local federal appeals court and state Supreme Court. Last semester, he sat in on Law Professor Jack Williams' bankruptcy law class.
He says Williams' ability to engage his class was impressive. "I really respect him for that," Yasumi said.
So much of law, Williams said, takes place in a cultural space. Although we may have an understanding legally about what constitutes an enforceable promise like a contract, the way it's formed, understood and ultimately enforced is very different based on the cultures. Yasumi not only had an opportunity to see Western law, Williams said, but he also got a sense of the culture in which those legal issues were developed.
"He noted, for example, even in a forum where you have many different parties attempting to negotiate an ultimate settlement of the assets of a company, that it nonetheless is still quite adversarial in relationship to the judicial practices in Japan," Williams explained.
Yasumi arrived in Atlanta in September after a month-long legal program at the University of California-Davis. He became engrossed with the high-profile death penalty trial of courthouse shooter Brian Nichols, which was just getting under way.
"The role of the judge also fascinated him," Williams said. "In Japan, the judges usually sit in groups or panels if you will, and they don't work with juries. But now, they're introducing the jury system to help as the trier of fact--that's why he was very interested in the Nichols' case. That was a new dimension for him."
Yasumi also plans to begin studying civil litigation. In Japan, like the United States, the number of civil cases winding through the courts is on the rise, Yasumi said, and it has been challenging for judges to keep up with the work flow. He said he's learning from Fulton judges he's met.
"How to manage and move forward with cases is a main concern of the courts and the judges," Yasumi said. "We need prompt and speedy trials, but we need to take time if it's appropriate. That balance takes skill and preparation and experience. The judges here [in Fulton courts] are all experienced."