Supremo Tribunal Federal

Supreme Federal Court (Brazil)

The Supreme Federal Court (Portuguese: Supremo Tribunal Federal or STF) is the supreme court (court of last resort) of Brazil. It is the highest court of law of the Brazil and its rulings cannot be appealed. The Court has the power of judicial review and judges the constitutionality of laws passed by the National Congress. This happens when the Court judges a Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (Ação Direta de Inconstitucionalidade, or Adin). The judges of the court are called ministers (Ministro). They are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. There is a mandatory retirement age of 70.

All judicial and administrative meetings of the Supreme Court have been broadcast live on television since 2002. The Court is open for the public to watch the meetings.

Chief Justice

The President and Vice-president of the Court are elected by their peers for a term of two years by secret ballot. Re-election for a consecutive term is not allowed. By tradition, the members of the Court always elect as president the most senior minister of the Court that has not yet served as President, to avoid politicization of the Court.

If all members currently sitting on the Court have already served as president, the rotation starts all over again; however, due to the existence of a compulsory retirement age, and the consequent appointment of new ministers to fill those vacancies, it is very rare for the cycle to be completed and re-started, and some ministers are forced to retire before their turn in the presidency arrives.

According to the same convention, the Court selects as vice-president for a certain term the minister who, according to that tradition, will be selected president in the succeeding term. Also by tradition, the elections of the president and vice-president are never unanimous, there being always one isolated minority vote in each election, as the ministers who are to be elected never cast their votes for themselves; such votes are cast either for the Dean of the Court – its most senior member – or for some other elder minister that the one to be elected admires and wants to pay homage to.


The court was inaugurated during the colonial era in 1808, the year that the royal family of Portugal (the House of Braganza) arrived in Rio de Janeiro. It was originally called the House of Appeals of Brazil (Casa de Suplicação do Brasil).

The proclamation of the Brazilian Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Imperial Constitution in 1824 preceded the establishment of the Supreme Court of Justice (Supremo Tribunal de Justiça) in 1829. With the first Constitution of the Republic, the current Court was established.

Although the constitutional norms that regulated the creation of the Court allowed Deodoro da Fonseca, Brazil's first president, to nominate an entirely new Court, the president chose to nominate as the first members of the Supreme Federal Court the ministers who were then serving as members of the predecessor imperial Court.

Two hundred members have served on the Court. The Constitution of 1891 decided that the Court would have 15 members. When Getúlio Vargas came into power, the number of members was reduced to 11. The number was changed to 16 in 1965, but returned to 11 in 1969 and has not changed since. Of all Presidents of Brazil, only one (Café Filho) never nominated a minister.

The president has a two-years term, which cannot be renewed. When the president steps down, by convention, the most senior member who has not been president yet, who, also by convention, is the vice-president, is elected president of the STF.


There are four main cases put to the STF vote in 2006: The first is to determine if the abortion of a fetus with no brain is legal. The second is to define if embryonic stem cell research is constitutional or not. The third is to decide over the legality of the postal service monopoly. Finally, the fourth is to determine the constitutionality of the National Council of Justice ruling that banned nepotism from the Judiciary.


Critics claim that the STF bases most of its decisions in a political way. With the recent Mensalão scandal, former chief of staff José Dirceu requested various writs to halt his expulsion process. Three ministers voted in favour of Dirceu in all writs: Sepúlveda Pertence, Eros Grau and then-president Nelson Jobim.

It is also said that various ministers had electoral pretensions. Former minister, and former judge of the International Court of Justice, Francisco Rezek resigned to become minister of foreign affairs, and after two years was again elected to the court. Former minister Maurício Corrêa admitted the possibility of being a candidate to a state government while he was a minister. Both ministers Pertence and Jobim have been rumored to be potential presidential candidates.


Due to the possibility that a single President may appoint several Ministers, thus creating some form of political connection with them which would seem to distort the Court's independence, there has been some discussion about changing the manner of choosing new members. Some think that the current system of appointment works in theory, but should be bettered in practice. The appointment of new Ministers by the President usually finds no obstacles whatsoever in the Senate, where the discussion about the nominee's views and opinions are nothing but a formality. Therefore, there are those who argue that the Senate should start asking questions that really matter and concern the Judiciary Branch. Some others believe that the age of 70, that brings compulsory retirement, should be revised, while there are discussions currently being held in the Senate that argue that the appointment of the Ministers should be divised between the Executive branch, the Legislative branch and the Judicial branch.


See also

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