Death of a Brazilian justice
Mr Zavascki became a household name—in spite of the string of consonants inherited from his Polish forebears—because he oversaw investigations into the corruption scandal centred on Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company. Known collectively as Lava Jato (Car Wash), these have dominated politics since 2014. They led indirectly to the impeachment last August of the president, Dilma Rousseff; she was not implicated, but her Workers’ Party (PT) was. Before he died Mr Zavascki was about to authorise plea-bargaining deals with businessmen that could lead to more prosecutions of politicians.
The STF is a hybrid, part constitutional court and part final court of appeal. Its most controversial decisions stem from its third role: to try politicians with parliamentary or ministerial immunity. In November 2015, for instance, Mr Zavascki ordered the arrest of a PT senator for conspiring to help a Lava Jato witness flee the country. Last May he removed the speaker of the lower house of congress on the grounds that he had used his position to interfere with Lava Jato probes. Both rulings, upheld by Mr Zavascki’s fellow justices, set precedents. Citizens cheered.
The court’s popularity has risen as that of politicians has plummeted. Of congress’s 594 members, 35 are targets of Lava Jato inquiries; dozens more are accused of other misdeeds.
Leaked depositions seem to implicate Mr Temer and several cabinet members, though all deny wrongdoing. In surveys of public confidence in professions, judges come way ahead of politicians (though well behind firemen, the most trusted group). Sérgio Moro, a lower-court judge who investigates Petrobras miscreants, is a national hero.
The judges’ widening political role is not entirely their doing. The growing polarisation of politics puts pressure on the STF to act as an arbiter. Brazilian justices cannot throw out a case, however absurd. Each has 7,000-10,000 pending; the United States’ Supreme Court hears a few dozen a year.
Throughout Brazil’s political crisis, the court’s willingness to hold politicians accountable has helped sustain citizens’ trust in democracy.
But the court’s growing assertiveness is also a danger to democracy, contends Rubens Glezer of FGV Law School in São Paulo. Justices speak too much in public, often rashly. Live broadcasts of STF sessions amplify large egos. Cameras make it harder to concede mistakes. Some court-watchers have suggested removing TV Justiça, a public broadcaster, from the courtroom.
Others talk of turning the STF into a narrower constitutional court akin to Germany’s, or moving it back to Rio de Janeiro, the capital before 1960, to put distance between the judiciary and government’s other two branches in Brasilia.
Ideas for changing the court’s role are worth considering, but not right now, when they could be construed as interfering with Lava Jato. To avoid such accusations, Mr Temer has wisely said that the Lava Jato file should not pass to the judge that he appoints to succeed Mr Zavascki (as it normally would) but to one of the current justices (which is permitted in exceptional circumstances).
That person, in turn, would be wise to emulate the understated doggedness of Teori Zavascki.