This past March, Brazil’s Supreme Court (the Supremo Tribunal Federal, or STF) issued an opinion that is considered one of the most significant defeats yet to the anticorruption effort known as the Car Wash (or Lava Jato) operation (see here and here). The case involved allegations that the former mayor of Rio de Janeiro and his campaign manager received roughly USD 4 million from the construction firm Odebrecht that was used for a campaign slush fund, in exchange for business advantages in connection with certain construction projects. The particular legal claim on which the defendants prevailed concerned not a substantive issue, but rather a jurisdictional question: whether the case was brought in the wrong court. In Brazil, the ordinary federal courts adjudicate ordinary federal crimes, but there are also special electoral courts that handle violations—including criminal violations—of Brazil’s Electoral Code. The use of slush funds, though not expressly listed as one of the actions criminalized under the Electoral Code, could be prosecuted under the Electoral Code’s prohibition on false statements, because doing what the former mayor allegedly did would entail failure to report funds used in an election campaign. Such charges would ordinarily be heard by the specialized electoral courts. But taking illegal contributions to a campaign slush fund in exchange for political favors could also be charged as bribery (or associated crimes like money laundering) under Brazil’s Criminal Code—crimes that would typically be adjudicated by the regular federal courts. Given that the same wrongful transaction might entail violations of both the Electoral Code and the Criminal Code, which court (or courts) should hear the case?
This is the question that the STF had to resolve, and it had, roughly speaking, three options. First, the STF could have ruled that the whole case (both the electoral crimes and the ordinary crimes) should be heard by an ordinary court. The second option would be to require that the special electoral court adjudicate the whole criminal case, including the ordinary criminal charges. Third, the STF could have held that the case should be split, with an electoral court dealing with the alleged violations of the Electoral Code and an ordinary court handling all the other charges. In a 6-5 decision, the STF went with the second option, holding that whenever an ordinary crime is committed in connection with an electoral crime, the whole criminal case must be decided by an electoral court.
This is hugely significant for the Lava Jato operation, because many of the cases the operation has uncovered involve potential violations of the Electoral Code, in the form of illegal or undisclosed campaign contributions made in exchange for political favors. (The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo estimates that almost 30% of Lava Jato’s rulings touch discussions of illegal campaign finance.) But although some cases related to Lava Jato have gone to the electoral courts, most of the cases, including all of the main criminal cases, have been prosecuted in the ordinary courts. Federal prosecutors, especially the Lava Jato task force, are very concerned about the STF’s decision and have criticized it as a significant blow to Brazil’s anticorruption efforts.
They are right to be worried. Although some have maintained that there is no serious cause for concern, in fact the STF’s decision poses a very serious problem, for several reasons.