SÃO PAULO (AA) – The President of Brazil’s Supreme Court, Joaquim Barbosa, the first black person to hold the position, is to retire in June, it was announced on Thursday.
Nominated to join Brazil’s highest court by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, Barbosa, 59, rose up the ranks to head the court as Chief Justice in November 2012.
He is one of Brazil’s most popular and influential public figures, and was voted in the top 100 influential men in the world by Time Magazine in 2013.
“It was surprising and sad. The minister came to say goodbye,” Renan Calheiros, president of Brazil’s Senate said Thursday, after Barbosa met both him and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Henrique Eduardo Alves, in the capital, Brasília, to announce his decision.
Calheiros called Barbosa “one of Brazil’s best references.”
Barbosa has yet to confirm or comment on his decision to retire, but is expected to step down before Congress goes on its mid-year recess in mid-July. His mandate runs until November of this year.
Brazil’s first black chief justice came to international prominence for his tough stance on corrupt politicians during the height of the trial of the Mensalão cash-for-votes scandal, which was judged by the Supreme Court for a year-and-a-half from August 2012.
The case resulted in 25 politicians, business figures and aides being handed prison sentences and was seen as unprecedented in a country where corrupt lawmakers have enjoyed impunity.
Despite being appointed by ex-President Lula, whom Barbosa supported, as Chief Justice he was unrelenting in condemning the politicians convicted of the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s recent political history, even though many of those sentenced had close links to the former president and his Workers’ Party – including Lula’s chief of staff, José Dirceu.
Mensalão, literally meaning “big monthly payment”, was a cash-for-votes scheme set up during the early part of President Lula’s time in office to help the ungainly coalition of numerous allied parties progress with getting bills passed in Congress.
Hero for black Brazilians
He is known for his professional yet no-nonsense style and disdain for privilege and corruption, and is also seen as an inspirational figure, particularly by many black Brazilians.
Barbosa’s name was included in an February 2014 opinion poll by Datafolha of hypothetical scenarios for candidates running for president in this October’s general elections.
Barbosa garnered 16% of votes in a scenario when running against incumbent President Dilma Rousseff (42%) and her closest two rival presidential hopefuls, Aécio Neves (14%) and Eduardo Campos (8%).
Barbosa himself has ruled out running for president in the next election.
Barbosa’s state school background has been regularly cited when the system faced criticism, and as chief justice he is one of the few black people to rise to the top rungs of public office in Brazil despite over half the country’s 200 million-strong population identified as being of African descent.
Black or Afro-Brazilians are far more likely to be employed in lower-skilled, manual jobs that do not require a high level of education.
Official figures on unemployment from 2012 show a small discrepancy in the level of employment for population groups: 7.9% of non-black Brazilians were unemployed versus 9.9% of the black population.
But a 2013 study by Brazil’s office of national statistics, showed Brazilians who are black or of mixed race received on average just 57.4% of the wages earned by white Brazilians.
Barbosa is known for standing during cases and pacing the court, due to a back condition that prevents him from sitting for long periods.
Vice President of Brazil’s Supreme Court Ricardo Lewandowski will assume the role when Barbosa steps down next month. Lewandowski opposed tough sentences for the Mensalão convicts, an issue leading to clashes in court between the two men at the time.
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