BRASILIA, Brazil -- President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday asked Brazil's Senate to impeach a Supreme Court justice — a largely symbolic move that shows he has little desire to ease tensions with the judiciary.
João Marques, Cabinet secretary of the Senate’s president, Rodrigo Pacheco, confirmed to The Associated Press that he received the president's request to impeach Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Pacheco will now have to decide whether there is justification to open investigations that could lead to impeachment. On Tuesday, Pacheco made comments to reporters widely interpreted as a signal that he does not see such grounds.
Bolsonaro has bristled at the top court’s rulings since early in the pandemic when justices ruled mayors and governors -- and not just the president -- have jurisdiction to impose restrictions to slow the virus’s spread. Lately, the feud has been coming to a head, with the president targeted by two investigations stemming from his relentless attacks on the integrity of the nation’s electronic voting system.
“For a long time, the justices Alexandre de Moraes and Luís Roberto Barroso have gone beyond constitutional limits with actions,” Bolsonaro wrote Aug. 14 on Twitter. He cited Article 52 of Brazil's constitution, which says judges may be tried for crimes and eventually removed from their positions.
The president's 18-page impeachment request ultimately targeted only de Moraes, and not Barroso. It alleges de Moraes' has carried out investigations with partisan and anti-democratic bias while acting as both investigator and judge and has censored freedom of speech.
Never before has the Senate invoked Article 52 against a Supreme Court justice, and signs indicate there isn’t a will to do so in this case, said Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.
Still, the request serves to keep Bolsonaro's base mobilized, he said.
“This has a symbolic effect for his base, as it shows the president is combative and always ready to react forcefully,” Calmon said.
With his approval ratings sliding, Bolsonaro has insisted the country's electronic vote system is prone to fraud -- but without presenting any evidence. That has prompted concern he may be laying the groundwork to dismiss election results. Recent polls have indicated that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is expected to challenge the incumbent in next year’s race, would win handily in a runoff.
The electoral court on Aug. 3 announced an investigation of Bolsonaro for his comments about the voting system, and de Moraes included the president in the Supreme Court's investigation into the spread of allegedly fake news.
On Aug. 13, de Moraes also ordered the imprisonment of Roberto Jefferson, a fervent Bolsonaro ally and president of the Brazilian Labor Party, for allegedly making threats to democracy on social media.
“If there is no printed vote and no public vote count, there won’t be an election next year,” Jefferson said in one video, published Aug. 10, echoing prior comments by Bolsonaro. His social media posts often show him brandishing firearms.
In a statement, the party denied any wrongdoing by Jefferson and said his jailing amounted to persecution and censorship.
In Bolsonaro's impeachment request, he likewise denied having committed any crime for which he is being investigated, and said he exercised “the fundamental right to freedom of thought.”
Lower house lawmakers last week voted down the proposal to adopt printed vote receipts. Some of Bolsonaro’s allies have implored him to set aside his discontent with the vote’s result and Jefferson’s imprisonment in order to stop antagonizing the top court and get his legislative agenda back on track. Their influence has been limited. ——— Associated Press writer Debora Alvares reported this story in Brasilia and AP writer Silva de Sousa reported from Rio de Janeiro. AP writer David Biller in Rio contributed to this report.