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‘Senator Underpants’ ignites new clash between Congress, Supreme Court

. Oct 18, 2020
senator Senator Chico Rodrigues. Photo: Roque de Sá/Ag.Sen./Div.

Unknown to most Brazilians until this week, Senator Chico Rodrigues of Amapá made international headlines after the Federal Police raided his home and found cash valued at thousands of dollars stashed “between his buttocks.” But while the case was received more as a fitting punchline to the degrading lows that corruption scandals seem to reach, it could have very serious consequences.

And that is because a Supreme Court justice ordered the suspension of Mr. Rodrigues from office for 90 days, a decision that can only be enforced if a majority of Brazil’s 81 senators agree with it — setting the stage for yet another clash between two branches of government.

</p> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro unceremoniously threw Mr. Rodrigues under the bus, denying any association with him —&nbsp;despite the abundance of video evidence of their mutual support, not to mention the fact that the senator was the government&#8217;s deputy whip.</p> <p>But senators are a very cohesive bunch, and seem keen to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/09/12/supreme-court-jair-bolsonaro-feud-new-chapter/">disregard the Supreme Court</a> — either by blatantly saying no to its decision, or by finding a more subtle way to circumvent the ruling. Sources shared messages with <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, exchanged between senators in WhatsApp groups — which included some saying that &#8220;there is nothing weighing against Chico Rodrigues.&#8221;</p> <p>Only 12 senators have so far sponsored a motion to impeach &#8220;Senator Underpants,&#8221; as the Brazilian press is calling him.</p> <h2>Possible outcomes to the quagmire&nbsp;</h2> <p>Justice Luís Roberto Barroso — who issued the ruling —&nbsp;asked Chief Justice Luiz Fux to take the matter before the full 11-justice bench, as a way to give more weight to his decision. It would mean taking a stand, declaring that challenging one justice&#8217;s decision would mean challenging the entire court.</p> <p>Here are the three possible outcomes for this impending feud:</p> <ul><li><strong>Full-blown confrontation.</strong> Among those who have pleaded for mercy for Chico Rodrigues, many say that the Senate should put its foot down and declare that the Supreme Court is overstepping its bounds by interfering with the inner workings of another branch of government. To give more legitimacy to their push to challenge the highest court in the land, senators would ask the Solicitor General&#8217;s Office for a report backing their arguments.</li><li><strong>Compromise.</strong> Another way to spare Mr. Rodrigues from punishment is by convincing him to take a 90-day leave of absence. That would keep him out of the Senate — thus adhering to the Supreme Court ruling, while avoiding his ultimate impeachment. Senate President Davi Alcolumbre — a man known in Brasília for trying to please all sides — is in favor of this option.</li><li><strong>Respect for the courts.</strong> Though less probable, there is always the chance that the Senate decides to respect the Supreme Court and take the suspension request to a floor vote. The result is anyone&#8217;s guess, as ballots are not secret and politicians may be swayed by public outcry — especially during election season.</li></ul> <h2>Supreme Court reputation in question</h2> <p>The legitimacy of the Supreme Court hinges on the tacit agreement among society that its rulings are final and must be respected. But an <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/09/16/explaining-brazil-supreme-court-crossroads/">increasingly politicized</a> judicial branch — alongside years of institutional crises — has led the court to losing the confidence of the Brazilian people. An <a href="https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/08/17/avaliacao-do-congresso-piora-e-do-stf-esta-estavel-aponta-datafolha.ghtml">August poll</a> shows that 29 percent of Brazilians believe the 11 justices do a &#8220;bad&#8221; or &#8220;terrible&#8221; job — 2 percentage points more than those who deem the court is doing a &#8220;good&#8221; or &#8220;great&#8221; job.&nbsp;</p> <p>Part of the blame comes from political stakeholders, who attack unfavorable decisions as anti-democratic lawfare. But the justices themselves fuel these claims, due to the court&#8217;s lack of respect for its own precedents and tendencies to change their interpretation of the law depending on who the plaintiff or defendant is.</p> <p>The latest example happened just a week ago, as Justice Marco Aurélio Mello ordered the <a href="https://twitter.com/BrazilianReport/status/1317197861164097536">release of one of the most dangerous drug lords</a> in Brazil from prison, based on a technicality. His peers tried to revert the decision, but the convict in question — André do Rap, from the First Command of the Capital (PCC) drug cartel — is already at large, likely having fled the country. Just months ago, however, the same court denied the release of a man accused of stealing two shampoo bottles. His defense team asked for the prison sentence to be converted into community service, but the man was deemed to be a &#8220;great risk to the public order.&#8221;</p> <p>With a crippled reputation, the Supreme Court is prey to politicians to want to play by their own rules. As both left- and right-wingers despise the court, there is no one to stand up when members of Congress cherry pick which judicial decisions they want to obey. And Congress has previous in this regard. In 2016, the Senate simply ignored a Supreme Court decision to remove veteran politician <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/12/21/election-congress-leaders-brazil-renan/">Renan Calheiros</a> — who faced corruption charges&nbsp;—&nbsp;from the chair of Senate President.&nbsp;</p> <p>How did the court respond? By nullifying its own ruling.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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