Bolsonaro’s possible hangman on the Supreme Court

. Jun 23, 2020
Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Photo: Pedro França/Ag. Senado

During his time as a federal judge, Sergio Moro became something of an executioner figure for ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, politicians from the Workers’ Party government support base, and businessmen who made fortunes with the embezzlement of public money. He sent many of his defendants to jail — including Lula — as part of the sweeping Operation Car Wash investigations.

Some years on, another judge may become the executioner of the Brazilian president. As a justice of the Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes is leading three inquiries that impact upon Jair Bolsonaro on various fronts and could even cost him his term and lead to the arrest of his loyal supporters. As a result, he has simultaneously been targeted as a pariah by pro-government groups, and sanctified by some wings of the opposition. It has been quite an image shift for Justice Moraes, who took his seat on the Supreme Court as the most conservative justice in over a decade.

</p> <p>It also shows just how much power judges can wield in Brazil, under the right circumstances. And how often the country&#8217;s legal system is intertwined in politics.</p> <h2>Supreme Court on a collision course with Bolsonaro</h2> <p>One of the aforementioned investigations was created by order of Justice Moraes himself, to examine attacks against the Supreme Court and its justices by way of fake news, defamatory accusations, and death threats, in addition to calls for closing the court in a military coup. The probe has already allowed Justice Moraes to issue a wide variety of orders, including temporarily removing an article with negative information about Chief Justice Dias Toffoli from a digital magazine last year, which was considered an unreasonable act of censorship, even among his Supreme Court peers.&nbsp;</p> <p>In May of this year, Justice Moraes ordered a police operation against members of Congress, business owners, and activists linked to President Bolsonaro, accusing these individuals of being part of a criminal organization operating a network of disseminating fake news and threats against the Supreme Court. The suspects have claimed they are victims of persecution, calling the orders against them ‘authoritarian acts’ and reaffirming their right to freedom of expression.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="572" src="" alt=" supreme court justice fake news" class="wp-image-43174" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1140w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Public enemy #1 for Bolsonaro supporters. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr</figcaption></figure> <p>Justice Moraes has also given orders in the inquiry that investigates the organization and funding of anti-democratic protests carried out in Brasília and other major cities in the country. President Bolsonaro was present at some of these demonstrations, alongside cabinet ministers and allied politicians.</p> <p>Opened at the request of the Federal Attorney General, Alexandre de Moraes is the rapporteur of the investigation. Among other things, this gives him the power to analyze requests for producing evidence. Last Tuesday, federal marshals carried out search and seizure warrants at the houses and offices of members of Congress, business owners, and bloggers suspected of contributing to the organization of these demonstrations, which call for the closure of the Supreme Court, Congress, and media outlets, in addition to harassing government opponents. Justice Moraes also authorized the scrutiny of the suspects’ tax and phone records, which led to President Bolsonaro issuing a declaration perceived as a threat to the Brazilian judiciary, suggesting that the time was approaching for &#8220;things to be put in their place.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <h2>Keeping the government in check during Covid-19</h2> <p>The third case under Justice Moraes’ purview deals with the omission of Covid-19 data in Brazil. He is the rapporteur of a case filed by three political parties questioning changes to the publication and calculation of data related to the coronavirus pandemic. The plaintiffs in the cases have called the federal government&#8217;s actions a violation of the population&#8217;s right to health and access to information.</p> <p>In addition to reducing the quality of the information — omitting the accumulated totals of cases and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, for example — the government began releasing daily updates late at night, after primetime TV newscasts had finished.</p> <p>The government also scrapped its daily coronavirus press conferences, in which the ex-Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta would comment on the progression of the epidemic and answer questions from the media. Mr. Mandetta left the government after opposing the changes in methodology later imposed by the president. Currently, the Health Ministry is led by a group of military personnel. Brazil has been without a permanent Health Minister for over five weeks.</p> <p>The department is once again publishing Covid-19 data as before, in accordance with a court order, but press conferences have ceased. Feeling they can no longer rely on official data, Brazil&#8217;s leading media outlets have begun collecting their own Covid-19 figures.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3553348"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Persona non grata among Bolsonaro supporters</h2> <p>Even before becoming the rapporteur of the case during the pandemic, Justice Moraes clashed with President Bolsonaro, suspending changes to the Access to Information Law, for example. The law allows any citizen to request public data through a simple procedure, made available on the websites of all government agencies. It is a tool widely used by journalists to research articles, and by technicians from regulatory agencies.</p> <p>Justice Moraes also blocked the appointment of Alexandre Ramagem as the head of Brazil&#8217;s Federal Police — which was the trigger for Sergio Moro&#8217;s resignation from the Justice Ministry. Mr. Moro stated that he had not been consulted about replacing the Federal Police Chief, and that he never wanted to make such a change. Mr. Ramagem is a close friend of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s second-eldest son Carlos, a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro. The president publicly chastised Mr. Moro for refusing to pass on confidential information about the investigations of the Federal Police, which is an independent government body, according to the Federal Constitution.</p> <p>Not unlike Sergio Moro, Alexandre de Moraes has become one of the favored targets for Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s supporters, who have issued threats against him and his family on social media.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Moraes before the Supreme Court</h2> <p>Besides a brief time in partisan politics, Alexandre de Moraes is an experienced and respected legal scholar in academia, with works that have become references in the fields of constitutional law, human rights, regulatory agencies and special criminal legislation. Graduating in 1990 from the Law School of the University of São Paulo, one of the most prestigious institutes in the country, Alexandre de Moraes obtained the title of associate professor in constitutional law at the same university.</p> <p>He started his professional career as a prosecutor in the state of São Paulo. At 33, he entered politics, becoming the youngest Secretary of Justice and Defense of Citizenship in the state&#8217;s history, working under then-Governor Geraldo Alckmin. In 2005, he was chosen to be part of the first board of the National Council of Justice (CNJ), being awarded the post by political appointment.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="Justice Moraes with House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, during a meeting in Congress back in October 2017. Photo: Marcelo Camargo/ABr" class="wp-image-43175" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Justice Moraes with House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, during a meeting in Congress back in October 2017. Photo: Marcelo Camargo/ABr</figcaption></figure> <p>Between 2007 and 2010, he worked under then São Paulo Mayor Gilberto Kassab. He held the positions of president at the Traffic Engineering Company and São Paulo Transporte, as well as a stint as Secretary of Services and Transport. Mr. Moraes became a kind of “super-secretary” in the country&#8217;s wealthiest and most populous city.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2014, worked as a lawyer for then-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha — later impeached — who led the process that ousted Dilma Rousseff from the presidency. He managed to absolve Mr. Cunha, who would later be arrested in another investigation as part of Operation Car Wash.</p> <p>In 2015, Mr. Moraes returned to work with Geraldo Alckmin in the state government of São Paulo, this time as Secretary of Public Security. Despite his history of defending human rights in papers published during his academic days, Alexandre de Moraes was greeted with hostility by social movements. He was accused of telling the police to act with a violent, zero-tolerance attitude against any group linked to the left-wing.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-2553436"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Alexandre de Moraes won the trust of Michel Temer — who was poised to step in as President of Brazil — by conducting an investigation that arrested an individual who hacked the cell phone of his wife, Marcela Temer. The criminal had asked her for money, claiming he had obtained compromising photos, videos, and messages from Mrs. Temer&#8217;s phone.</p> <p>After concluding the investigation, Michel Temer appointed Mr. Moraes as Justice Minister after Dilma Rousseff&#8217;s impeachment in May 2016. Early in his tenure, his decisions were met with much controversy. Among others, he signed a decree that gave the Justice Ministry the power to review analyzes of the Brazilian indigenous affairs agency (Funai) on the demarcation of indigenous lands. Faced by public backlash, he revoked the measure soon afterward. Mr. Moraes was also accused of revealing details of a confidential Federal Police operation, which he denied, claiming he was misunderstood. The mainstream press demanded his resignation, but President Temer did not give in to pressure and kept his faithful ally in the cabinet.</p> <p>Alexandre de Moraes overcame opposition to take a vacancy in the Supreme Federal Court, which opened up with the death of Teori Zavascki — killed in a plane crash — in February 2017. He arrived at the highest court in Brazil at just 47 years of age, far younger than any of his peers. Thus, he will serve in the court for at least 27 years, until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.</p> <p>Propelled by support from center-right parties, Alexandre de Moraes was the first Supreme Court justice appointed after the center-left Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s 13 years in power. Thus, he was expected to bring a more conservative bias to the court. Mr. Moraes had already spoken out publicly against the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, considering that these practices violate the right to life. He was also against reducing the age of criminal responsibility but advocated harsher punishments for minors under the age of 18 in the case of heinous crimes. </p> <p>He has not changed his mind since he took his seat on the Supreme Court.</p> <p>Oddly, despite being brought into the Supreme Court as Michel Temer&#8217;s confidence man, in his Ph.D. dissertation Mr. Moraes <a href=",tese-de-moraes-impediria-sua-nomeacao-ao-stf,70001654253">argued</a> that presidents should not be able to appoint members to the country&#8217;s highest court. &#8220;I will never work understanding that my nomination or eventual approval by your excellencies has any connection to political favors,&#8221; said Mr. Moraes, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing at the Senate.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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