Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court is a strange beast. Its 11 members—often selected based on personal connections and ideological alignment as opposed to professional aptitude—are given bizarre powers to stall and fast-track cases at a whim. In recent years, the court has become awash with individual injunctions and justices playing out political proxy wars in full view of the public. The result is a bloated system and a jaw-dropping backlog of cases.

The justices themselves cannot shoulder all the blame for this, however. The STF, as it is known, has three main responsibilities which single it out from any similar superior tribunal in the world. Besides serving as the last court of appeal for any criminal or civil case, and ruling on any issues concerning the constitution, the STF is also the only place elected officials can be put to trial for crimes committed during their term. With a thoroughly corrupt political system in a litigious society, these cases pile up fast. And with regard to its role as the arbiter of the Constitution, while Brazil’s 1998 Magna Carta represented great advances in several aspects, it is also very open to interpretation.

The STF receives an average of around 70,000 cases per year—meaning it would have to rule on 350 cases every working day to keep up. As they say in Brazil, that’s a lot of pineapples to peel.

However, solutions have been put in place to reduce this inevitable backlog—and they are working. By the end of 2018, the Supreme Court had cleared an impressive 105,542 cases, leaving it with a backlog of “only” 38,533 pending cases, 15.2 percent less than the previous year.

This, of course, begs the question: how can 11 justices clear so many cases in such a short space of time? The answer lies in a new and rarely visited facet of the STF, away from the bombastic trials plastered all over the news: the so-called “digital court.”

Digital justice

The mechanism was put in place in 2007 as a plan to reduce the STF justices’ caseload. It works as a simple electronic voting system, where each member of the court can log on and issue their decision without the need for a physical session of one of the STF panels or the full bench.

For the first 9 years of its existence, it was used only to determine which appeals have “general repercussion,” which is a Brazilian legislative term which essentially translates to the admissibility of a case, and a recognition that the final decision will be obeyed by all courts in the country for similar matters.

Supreme Court Brazil digital justice

Once the general repercussion is verified by way of a digital court vote, the case is then trialed in full court, therefore speeding up the process of admitting appeals.

The tool was then expanded, and it began being used to decide on motions for clarification and interlocutory appeals, instruments which take up a significant amount of the Supreme Court’s time.

The process is simple: the rapporteur of each case uploads a synopsis and the remaining justices have seven days to give their opinion. They have four voting options: “agree with the rapporteur,” “agree with the rapporteur with caveats,” “disagree with the rapporteur,” and “agree with the disagreement.” If any justice chooses not to act on the case, his/her vote is counted as “agree with the rapporteur,” meaning appeals can be granted without the input of several members of the court, which is, in fact, the norm.

The institution is hoping to take the program one step further, using the online platform to trial Direct Actions for the Declaration of Unconstitutionality (ADI).

A double-edged sword

Public reactions to the digital court have been mixed. While the numbers do show that the tool has helped streamline Brazil’s highest tribunal, the already tarnished image of the Supreme Court has led to suspicions about the “real motives” behind taking certain decisions online.

In truth, the advent of the digital court does offer Supreme Court justices even more power than they had before. If it is perceived that a certain appeal may cause negative repercussion among the general public—for better or for worse—justices can take the case out of the spotlight and decide on the digital court.

As a hypothetical example, in a situation such as the current moment, when the Supreme Court perceives a need for the legislature to approve a reform to the pension system, appeals concerning issues which could cause public outcry or a diversion of attention of members of Congress could be taken to the digital court, with the guarantee that the most important cases will always be decided via in-person sessions.

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PowerMar 14, 2019

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BY Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall is a Scottish journalist living in São Paulo. He is co-author of A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.