Brazil Supreme Court's new chief justice faces stormy ties with Congress

Thu, Sep 28
Key Points
  • Luis Roberto Barroso, a liberal judge known for his progressive views, has been appointed as the chief justice of Brazil's Supreme Court.
  • Barroso is expected to face opposition from a conservative-led Congress that aims to limit the court's influence on social issues and human rights debates.
  • Barroso has expressed his commitment to defending human rights, including gay marriage and indigenous rights, but has also promised to maintain a dialogue with Congress.
  • The court's decisions on controversial issues such as abortion, marijuana decriminalization, and tech platforms' responsibilities may deepen the rift with Congress and lead to proposed constitutional amendments.

Luis Roberto Barroso, a liberal who has favored legalizing abortion and criminalizing homophobia in his 10 years on Brazil's Supreme Court, became chief justice on Thursday as the court's relations chilled with Congress over allegations of judicial overreach.

Barroso, 65, an outspoken jurist known for his progressive views, is expected to face backlash from a conservative-led Congress where lawmakers vow to curb the top court's influence on hot-button social issues and human rights debates.

Barroso said the Supreme Court will defend human rights, including gay marriage, and the rights of Brazil's Indigenous people to preserve their cultures and parts of their land.

But he denied the court was overly active and promised Congressional leaders attending his swearing-in to maintain a dialogue and "live in harmony" with the legislature.

Thorny issues that may deepen the rift with Congress during his two-year term as chief justice include decriminalization of abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, decriminalization of marijuana possession and holding the "big techs" responsible for content posted on their platforms.

Lawmakers say those issues should be decided by elected representatives in Congress rather than the 11-member court, which they accuse of "usurping" their legislative powers. They have proposed changing Brazil's constitution to blunt the court's influence.

"Members of the legislature are clearly irritated by the idea that they do not have the last word," said Creomar de Souza, at Dharma Political Risk consultancy in Brasilia. "Their planned constitutional amendments are a clear threat to a judiciary whose profile is now ideologically at odds with that of Congress."

Barroso drew criticism recently by stating at an event: "We defeated Bolsonarismo" referring to the court's response to former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro's attacks on Brazil's democratic institutions and voting system. His remark led conservative lawmakers to file a request to impeach Barroso.

As chief justice, Barroso will oversee the trials of hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters who were arrested for taking part in the storming of government buildings on Jan. 8 in an attempt to overturn his electoral defeat.

Democratic institutions are under threat worldwide from authoritarian populism, but they had prevailed in Brazil, Barroso said in his speech.

"Here democracy was victorious ... the armed forces did not succumb to coup-mongering," he said.