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What is the structure of the Brazilian Judicial Branch?

Admission to public offices is a key factor to understand the model

Brasil de Fato | Brasília, Federal Capital |
Supreme Court of Brazil, Brasília, Federal Capital
Supreme Court of Brazil, Brasília, Federal Capital - José Cruz/ABr

Lula’s trial connected to the operation Car Wash and other cases related to it are recurring news in the Brazilian and international press. However, for those who are not familiar with the branches, instances and judicial roles, Brasil de Fato has prepared this simple and fast explanation about how the Justice is structured in our country.

The first big structural division is between the ordinary branch and specialized bodies. The former deals with civil and criminal cases, among others. The latter have as examples the military, electoral and labour branches. For instance, Lula’s case concerning the “triplex apartment in Guarujá” is a criminal judicial procedure; on the other hand, the decision to come whether he will or will not be able to register as a candidate on the basis of the “Ficha Limpa” Law, will be taken in by the electoral Justice.

In the ordinary Justice there is another important division: state and federal levels, or spheres. Broadly, the legal jurisdiction is defined in accordance to who is involved in each case or the type of crime. For example: Operation Car Wash has begun at federal-level because the investigations led to crimes against the federal tax order.

Both ordinary and specialized bodies can be divided in three instances: first the judges; second, the court of appeals judges; and, at last, the superior courts and their justices.

To give a better picture, let’s look at the institutional model of the ordinary Justice. At the bottom, there are judges, who work at bodies called “varas”. Just above them, there are the Justice Courts (TJ) at the state-level or the Federal Regional Courts (TRF) at the federal-level. At the top, we have the Superior Court of Justice (STJ) and the Federal Supreme Court (STF).

The STF is at the top of the entire judicial system in Brazil, regardless of the distinction between ordinary and specialized branches. It is responsible for interpreting the Brazilian Constitution, as an equivalent of the US Supreme Court.

Back to the example involving Lula, a first instance judge, like Sergio Moro, is responsible for individual legal sentences, or trials. It is possible to appeal, and the court of appeals judges must reach a collective decision. In the case of Lula, the responsible body to decide the appeal is the Federal Regional Court of the Fourth Region (TRF-4), which embraces all the three states from the Brazilian southern area.

As it has been said, it is also possible to lodge special and extraordinary appeals to both the STJ and STF. This means that if the court of appeals judges decide to maintain Lula’s first sentence condemning him, he can still appeal to two more judicial bodies.

Who are the Brazilian judges?

In contrast to other countries, in Brazil judges are not elected. They are selected by public contests. Due to the very high incomes – dozens of times greater than the minimum wage and many times higher than the legal limit -, these positions at the legal system attract the former students of top Law schools in the country. These schools themselves are mainly attended by members of rich families.

The  court of appeals judges are chosen by the president of the Republic or by the governors from lists made by the courts themselves – for most cases – and by the public prosecution members and the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) – for a few posts.
The members of STJ are chosen among the court of appeals judges, and also by the recommendation of public prosecutors and the Bar Association. The name is selected by the president, but the Senate must approve it.

In the case of the STF, the justices are directly chosen by the president – without formal lists – and, as for the STJ, must be approved by senators.

Read this news in Portuguese and Spanish.


Edited by: Vivian Fernandes