You can’t say a judge is not God in Brazil (according to judges themselves)
“Do you know who you are talking to?” That is one of the most common statements one can hear from a Brazilian authority that is caught red-handed. An ongoing case shows how bizarre that can be. Traffic officer Luciana Tamborini was fined in about US$ 2,000 because she stopped a man that had no documents at all and whose car wasn’t bearing any plates. When the offender told the agent that he was judge José Carlos Paes, she replied: “a judge is not God.” So he held her for exceeding her powers and for contempt of court. The decision was confirmed by three other judges of Rio’s Court. The officer will appeal.
What is most interesting about this case is that for the first time in a while there was a revolt against Brazil’s baroque and shadowy Judiciary. Thanks to lawyer Flávia Penido, about US$ 8,000 were raised to pay the allegedly heavy damages suffered by poor judge Paes. Although many judges insist there is no mistake in the decision against the traffic officer who denied them Godly powers, even members of the highest court in the nation noticed the gap between them and average Brazilians was widening because of that case. So some of them came out with a very bold thesis: judges are like everyone else.
No doubt Brazil’s Supreme Court is very open if compared to international peers. We see their trials on TV and that has even sparked accusations of exhibitionism of some Justices. But the lower branches are poorly covered by the press, face little interference from their ombudsmen and even less from Brazil’s attorney’s bar. In those lower branches there is loads of decisions just like that one of Judge Paes — but few hit the news. Such leeway to act strongly discourages any willingness to reform, since Brazil’s endless appeal system keeps judges, law firms and authorities happy enough.
Another sign Brazil’s Judiciary truly believes they can be God is how little they care about budgets and excessive spending. Every Justice in the Supreme Court gets the same pay of President Dilma Rousseff: about US$ 10,000 a month. In the lower courts, bonuses, allowances and extras are so intere$ting that judges sometimes make more than the head of State. Recently all key members of the Judiciary decided they would get a US$ 1,500 extra to pay for their rent. That is about 20 times the average paid to members of social program Bolsa Família, which feeds poor families despite criticism of many of those judges.
Judges that are uneasy with the system could be punished
A judge in São Paulo went on TV to admit that the housing allowance was just a way to raise their salaries, since they needed to go to Miami and buy nice suits to be fit for their job. When President Rousseff rejected the budget sent by the Judiciary a couple of years ago, Justices of the Supreme Court went on camera to cry foul: it was unacceptable interference from the Executive. Despite rejecting that intrusion, Justices are usually glad in reinterpreting the Constitution to bypass Congress in matters that are allegedly in grey areas. No wonder it is so difficult for these guys to believe they are not a deity. Brazil allows them to.