Joaquim Barbosa named first black man to lead Brazil’s Supreme Court

black Brazilians
Barbosa’s rulings angered former President’s supporters

The judge overseeing a major corruption trial in Brazil has been appointed president of the Supreme Court, the first black person to hold the post.

Judge Joaquim Barbosa, who was born into a poor family, has been praised for his judicial independence. He will take over the post once the “Mensalão” corruption trial ends. In the trial, 22 of the 25 defendants have already been convicted so far, including the former minister José Dirceu. Brazil has the largest black population after Nigeria. Many are descended from African slaves, but black people rarely achieve high office

Barbosa was elected president of the board by colleagues on Wednesday without objection. Barbosa, 58, was elected by his fellow judges, following the Court’s tradition of nominating its most senior member. Born in the remote town of Paracatu in the state of Minas Gerais and the son of a builder, Mr. Barbosa was educated in Brazil’s much criticized state school system. He later moved to the capital, Brasília, where he studied for a law degree at the city’s best university.

To support himself through university, he worked as a typist and a cleaner in one of the city’s courts, and later began a successful career as a public prosecutor.

‘Invisible barriers’

In 2003, he became a household name in Brazil when he was appointed by then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to the Supreme Court. Two mixed-race judges had previously been members of the court, but Mr. Barbosa said he was the first one who could be “widely recognized as a black man”.

“This act has great significance, as it indicates to society the end of certain visible and invisible barriers,” he said at the time. Barbosa graduated in law at the University of Brasília and has a master’s and doctorate from the University of Paris-II.

He is a licensed professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj) and author of two books on law, one on the functioning of the Supreme Court, published in France, and another on the effect of affirmative action in the United States.

He has been in the spotlight in Brazil in the last two months as the rapporteur of the case against some of former President Lula’s key aides. The case became known locally as “Mensalão”, or “the Big Monthly” allowance. His stance has been praised in the streets: on Sunday while he voted in Rio, Barbosa was approached by residents who wanted to be photographed at his side.

Barbosa posing for a photo

Barbosa’s skin color has also been raised by critics of the minister who are not a part of the court. Convicted at trial of the monthly allowance for passive corruption and money laundering, former deputy Roberto Jefferson said in an interview in August that Barbosa had been appointed by the court because he was black. “I suppose (he) went to the Supreme Court by a racial quota, and not by renowned legal knowledge”, said Jefferson.

In the book that tells his experience as Lula’s counselor during his administration, Frei Betto also wrote that the color of Barbosa influenced his choice for the Supreme Court. In annotation made in 2003, he says he was approached by then Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos, looking for a nomination of “a black with a profile to fill the vacancy in the Supreme Court.”

According Betto, Lula wanted to appoint someone black to the court. “I remembered Joaquim Barbosa. The minister summoned him for an interview,” he wrote.


Barbosa at 14; cover of Veja magazine

‘Bad faith’

But for Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, professor of the history of Brazil at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, saying that Barbosa was chosen for the Supreme Court mainly because he’s black “is a statement of bad faith.”

“He is an exclusive municipal prosecutor and a rare Supreme Court justice with doctorates abroad,” he said to the BBC Brazil.

Although he defends Barbosa’s credentials to hold the position regardless of color, Alencastro states that the Brazilian Constitution explicitly favors the adoption of affirmative action to enhance the representation of blacks and women in key positions in the federal administration.

He says that the appointment of women, a policy intensified by President Dilma Rousseff, is rarely challenged. “But when it comes to a black, it becomes an oddity, or absurdity.”

Depicted as “Brazilian Batman”: see below

In recent days, the minister also graced magazine covers and has been quoted by foreign newspapers. For the “New York Times”, he is emerging from the trial as a kind of “political hero.” The positions of Barbosa in the process have been followed by most ministers. The easy scoreboard of votes, however, contrasts with the tense relations that Barbosa has with some members of the court.

Appointed to the Supreme Court in 2003 by then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Barbosa, 58, will assume the presidency of the court on November 22, when the current occupant of the office, Ayres Britto, completes 70 years and retires. Barbosa will hold the post for two years.

Judge Barbosa angered government supporters when he convicted senior members of the Lula government. On Tuesday, former chief of staff Jose Dirceu, the Workers’ Party’s former president, José Genoino, and treasurer Delúbio Soares were found guilty of corruption.Most judges in the Supreme Court agreed with Mr Barbosa’s report, in which he accused the three men of using public funds to pay members of Congress for support in crucial votes.

Lula was not implicated in the scandal.

Translation of above photo: “Batman is for the weak. My hero is black, wears a black robe and is in Brasília fighting against the greatest villains in Brazil’s history. Thank you Minister Joaquim Barbosa.”

Source: BBC (English), BBC (Portuguese)

About Marques Travae 2898 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

4 Comments

  1. If you look at the tenure of Clarence Thomas in the USA supreme court the history of these token positions is rank with failure. I would be more impressed with how many Black judges handle cases involving residents in Black communities in Brazil

  2. We make such a big deal out of individual accomplishments dont we. The Black community of Brazil isn't helped with this act. Joaquim Barbosa is helped. We have to look at what the Black community of Brazil needs legally, not the number of representatives in the system that favors whites.

  3. For several days this magistrate is the victim of racist ataques in social networks and also from politicians. He was condemned to prison member of the ruling party (PT) for corruption.
    Associations lute counter racism and blacks intellectuals expressing nese simply have said nothing in his defense! Today is the day “da consciência negra” in Brazil!

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