Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Brazil’s Supreme Court Decides Against Public Opinion



Brazil’s Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Tribunal—STF) was deeply divided on the afternoon of September 18. The court’s eleven justices had to decide whether they would accept a motion to hear the appeals of twelve politicians charged in last year’s landmark corruption trial, popularly deemed as the mensalão (monthly allowance).

Ten justices voted in last week’s decision:  five voted in favor of the motion and five voted against it. The nation waited eagerly until last Wednesday to learn which way Justice Celso de Mello—the Court’s deciding vote—had leaned. If Justice Mello were to decide that the Court should deny the motion, the eight-year-long mensalão trial would have concluded that very day. But the result is now public: Justice Mello voted to accept the motion, thus beginning a new chapter in the historic case.

In a symbolic expression that represented the disappointment of millions of Brazilians who watched the televised judgment live on TV Justiça, Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa appeared visibly frustrated upon learning of the results. But what does the decision mean, and why is the majority of the Brazilian public seemingly opposed to it?

The mensalão case has been recognized as the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history, involving important political figures such as José Dirceu, former chief-of-staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and João Paulo Cunha, former president of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies).

Collaborators organized an intricate vote-buying scheme to ensure that legislation received quick congressional  approval from a diverse governing coalition that otherwise lacked consensus. The scheme started in 2003, during Lula’s first year as president, but was not made public until 2005. The infamous trial leveraged a series of allegations against 39 politicians—25 were ultimately sentenced to various criminal charges in 2012. 

Brazil’s Supreme Court has historically been seen as the nation’s moral pillar. Following the court’s 2012 verdicts, the media and the Brazilian public celebrated the emblematic outcome as the beginning of a new era, in which those involved in corruption could finally be held accountable.  Sadly, they rejoiced too soon—the appeals process would quickly prove them wrong.Upon receiving the appeals, the justices entered a heated debate on the permissibility and the complex technicalities of the Court’s intricate by-laws. With the Court so strongly divided—Justice Mello held the deciding vote in what was an otherwise divided bench—justices thought they could  choose either side and  still be accepted by the public. But in cases like the mensalão, justices must solely examine the constitutional principles at stake, rather than consider the popular outcome their decisions may hold.

In privileging legal technicalities over the broader purpose of the Law, Brazil’s Supreme Court justices made a flawed calculation.  Their decision resulted in wide distrust of the judicial system—only 21 percent of São Paulo residents surveyed by the Datafolha research institute considered the Court’s handling of the mensalão case “good or great”—which could ultimately result in a collapse of the country’s rule of law.

Justice Barroso commented that public opinion held no influence in his decision-making process—while Justice Marco Aurélio claimed that public opinion will always play a significant role in the judicial review process.  

I believe the Constitution must serve as an expression of public will and should reflect what a society considers to be the most important aspects of its laws. On the contrary, a Supreme Court justice who protects the interests of a select few over the legitimate interests of the majority is working from an unsustainable position.

The mensalão case was considered a crusade against the systemic corruption notoriously affiliated with Brazil’s political system, and one of the primary issues emphasized by protestors last June.  2014 is an election year in Brazil: Will this new frustration lead to future demonstrations? What impact will it have in the country’s political and judicial circles?  We’ll just have to wait to find out the answers.

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