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Desembargadores, Brazilian high-court magistrates who were divided into extravagantes, unassigned judges who were appointed to cases on an as-needed basis, and dos agravos, or appellate judges. As a kind of traveling circuit judge in the colonies, the desembargador enforced royal policy and was regularly used as a judicial investigator in outlying areas.

Occupying the pinnacle of the Portuguese justice system was the Desembargo do Paço, which developed from an advisory committee to Dom João (1481–1495) into a fully institutionalized government board, established by the Ordenações Manuelinas of 1514. Although it could hear cases of special merit, its primary function was as an advisory board and council on all matters of justice and legal administration. It became a central organ in the bureaucratic structure of the Portuguese Empire. The Desembargo do Paço appointed royal magistrates, promoted them, and evaluated their performance through the residência (investigation) at the end of their tours of duty. It settled conflicts of jurisdiction between subordinate tribunals or magistrates and, on occasion, conducted special examinations (devassas). By custom, the Desembargo do Paço consisted of six magistrates, including one ecclesiastic trained in church law. Into the twenty-first century, the title of desembargador remains in use throughout Brazil for certain members of federal tribunals.

See alsoJudicial Systems: Brazil; Portuguese Empire; Residencia.


Stuart B. Schwartz, Sovereignty and Society of Colonial Brazil (1973).

Additional Bibliography

Bonelli, Maria da Glória. Profissionalismo e política no mundo do direito: As relações dos advogados, desembargadores, procuradores de justiça e delegados de polícia com o Estado. São Carlos: EdUFSCar; São Paulo: IDESP, Editora Sumaré: FAPESP, 2002.

Subtil, José Manuel Louzada Lopes. O Desembargo do Paço (1750–1833). Lisboa: Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa, Departamento de Ciências Humanas, 1996.

                                          Ross Wilkinson